The Metropolitan Museum of Art is an art museum located on the eastern edge of Central Park, along what is known as Museum Mile in New York City, USA. It has a permanent collection containing more than two million works of art, divided into nineteen curatorial departments. The main building, often referred to simply as "the Met," is one of the world's largest art galleries, and has a much smaller second location in Upper Manhattan, at "The Cloisters," which features medieval art.
Represented in the permanent collection are works of art from classical antiquity and Ancient Egypt, paintings and sculptures from nearly all the European masters, and an extensive collection of American and modern art. The Met also maintains extensive holdings of African, Asian, Oceanic, Byzantine and Islamic art. The museum is also home to encyclopedic collections of musical instruments, costumes and accessories, and antique weapons and armor from around the world. A number of notable interiors, ranging from 1st century Rome through modern American design, are permanently installed in the Met's galleries.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art was founded in 1870 by a group of American citizens. The founders included businessmen and financiers, as well as leading artists and thinkers of the day, who wanted to open a museum to bring art and art education to the American people. It opened on February 20, 1872, and was originally located at 681 Fifth Avenue.
As of 2007, the Met measures almost a quarter mile long and occupies more than two million square feet.
The facade of the Metropolitan Museum is one of the main features of New York City's "Museum Mile".
The Met's permanent collection is cared for and exhibited by nineteen separate departments, each with a specialized staff of curators, restorers, and scholars.
Represented in the permanent collection are works of art from classical antiquity and Ancient Egypt, paintings and sculptures from nearly all the European masters, and an extensive collection of American and modern art. The Met also maintains extensive holdings of African, Asian, Oceanic, Byzantine and Islamic art. The museum is also home to encyclopedic collections of musical instruments, costumes and accessories, and antique weapons and armor from around the world. A number of notable interiors, ranging from 1st century Rome through modern American design, are permanently installed in the Met's galleries.
In addition to its permanent exhibitions, the Met organizes and hosts large travelling shows throughout the year.
The current director is Philippe de Montebello, who announced January 8, 2008 that he planned to retire at the end of the year. On September 10, 2008, it was announced that long-time curator Thomas P. Campbell would replace de Montebello in January 2009.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
U.S. National Historic Landmark
Elevation by Simon Fieldhouse
Elevation by Simon Fieldhouse
Architect: Calvert Vaux; Jacob Wrey Mould
Architectural style(s): Gothic
Designated as NHL: June 24, 1986
Added to NRHP: January 29, 1972
NRHP Reference#: 86003556
Governing body: Local
Opening reception in the picture gallery at 681 Fifth Avenue, February 20, 1872. Wood engraving published in Frank Leslie's Weekly, March 9, 1872.
The New York State Legislature granted the The Metropolitan Museum of Art an Act of Incorporation on April 13, 1870 "for the purpose of establishing and maintaining in said City a Museum and Library of Art, of encouraging and developing the Study of the Fine Arts, and the application of Art to manufacture and natural life, of advancing the general knowledge of kindred subjects, and to that end of furnishing popular instruction and recreations."
The museum first opened on February 20, 1872, housed in a building located at 681 Fifth Avenue in New York City. John Taylor Johnston, a railroad executive whose personal art collection seeded the museum, served as its first President, and the publisher George Palmer Putnam came on board as its founding Superintendent. The artist Eastman Johnson acted as Co-Founder of the museum. Under their guidance, the Met's holdings, initially consisting of a Roman stone sarcophagus and 174 mostly European paintings, quickly outgrew the available space. In 1873, occasioned by the Met's purchase of the Cesnola Collection of Cypriot antiquities, the museum decamped from Fifth Avenue and took up residence at the Douglas Mansion at 128 West 14th Street. However, these new accommodations proved temporary, as the growing collection required more space than the mansion could provide.
After negotiations with the city of New York in 1871, the Met acquired land on the east side of Central Park, where it built its permanent home, a red-brick stone "mausoleum" designed by American architect Calvert Vaux and his collaborator Jacob Wrey Mould. Vaux's ambitious building was not well-received; the building's High Victorian Gothic style was already going out of fashion by the time construction was completed, and the president of the Met termed the project "a mistake." Within 20 years, a new architectural plan, incorporating the Vaux building solely as an interior and stripping it of many of its distinctive design elements, was already being executed. Since that point, a host of new galleries and architectural elements, including the distinctive Beaux-Arts facade, designed by architect and Met trustee Richard Morris Hunt and completed in 1926, have continued to expand the museum's physical structure, with the Vaux-designed structure completely surrounded by later additions. (The Met's great entrance hall was also designed by Hunt, who died before it was finished. Hunt's son Richard Howland Hunt oversaw completion of the great hall to his father's specifications.)
As of 2007, the Met measures almost a quarter mile long and occupies more than two million square feet, more than 20 times the size of the original 1880 building.
American decorative arts
The American Decorative Arts Department includes about 12,000 examples of American decorative art, ranging from the late seventeenth to the early twentieth century. Though the Met acquired its first major holdings of American decorative arts via a 1909 donation by Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, wife of the financier Russell Sage, a decorative arts department specifically dedicated to American works was not established until 1934. One of the prizes of the American Decorative Arts department is its extensive collection of American stained glass. This collection, probably the most comprehensive in the world, includes many pieces by Louis Comfort Tiffany. The department maintains twenty-five period rooms in the museum, each of which recreates an entire room, complete with furnishings, from a noted period or designer. The department's current holdings also include an extensive silver collection notable for containing numerous pieces by Paul Revere as well as works by Tiffany & Co.
American paintings and sculpture
Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze
Since its founding, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has placed a particular emphasis on collecting American art. The first piece to enter the Met's collection was an allegorical sculpture by Hiram Powers titled California, acquired in 1870, which can still be seen in the Met's galleries today. In the following decades, the Met's collection of American paintings and sculpture has grown to include more than one thousand paintings, six hundred sculptures, and 2,600 drawings, covering the entire range of American art from the early Colonial period through the early twentieth century. Many of the best-known American paintings are held in the Met's collection, including a portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart and Emanuel Leutze's monumental Washington Crossing the Delaware. The collection also includes masterpieces by such notable American painters as Winslow Homer, George Caleb Bingham, John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, and Thomas Eakins.
Ancient Near Eastern art
Beginning in the late 1800s, the Met started to acquire ancient art and artifacts from the Near East. From a few cuneiform tablets and seals, the Met's collection of Near Eastern art has grown to more than 7,000 pieces. Representing a history of the region beginning in the Neolithic Period and encompassing the fall of the Sassanian Empire and the end of Late Antiquity, the collection includes works from the Sumerian, Hittite, Sassanian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Elamite cultures (among others), as well as an extensive collection of unique Bronze Age objects. The highlights of the collection include a set of monumental stone lammasu, or guardian figures, from the Northwest Palace of the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II.
Arms and armor
Arms and armor, Middle Ages main hall
The Met's Department of Arms and Armor is one of the museum's most popular collections. The distinctive "parade" of armored figures on horseback installed in the first-floor Arms and Armor gallery is one of the most recognizable images of the museum. The department's focus on "outstanding craftsmanship and decoration", including pieces intended solely for display, means that the collection is strongest in late medieval European pieces and Japanese pieces from the fifth through the nineteenth centuries. However, these are not the only cultures represented in Arms and Armor; the collection spans more geographic regions than almost any other department, including weapons and armor from dynastic Egypt, ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, the ancient Near East, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, as well as American firearms (especially Colt firearms) from the nineteenth and 20th centuries. Among the collection's 15,000 objects are many pieces made for and used by kings and princes, including armor belonging to Henry II of France and Ferdinand I of Germany.
Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas
Though the Met first acquired a group of Peruvian antiquities in 1882, the museum did not begin a concerted effort to collect works from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas until 1969, when American businessman and philanthropist Nelson A. Rockefeller donated his more than 3,000-piece collection to the museum. Today, the Met's collection contains more than 11,000 pieces from sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific Islands and the Americas and is housed in the 40,000-square-foot (4,000 m2) Rockefeller Wing on the south end of the museum. The collection ranges from 40,000-year-old Australian Aboriginal rock paintings, to a group of fifteen-foot high memorial poles carved by the Asmat people of New Guinea, to a priceless collection of ceremonial and personal objects from the Nigerian Court of Benin. The range of materials represented in the Africa, Oceania, and Americas collection is undoubtedly the widest of any department at the Met, including everything from precious metals to porcupine quills.
Hokusai's The Great Wave off Kanagawa
The Met's Asian department holds a collection of Asian art that is arguably the most comprehensive in the West. The collection dates back almost to the founding of the museum: many of the philanthropists who made the earliest gifts to the museum included Asian art in their collections. Today, an entire wing of the museum is dedicated to the Asian collection, which contains more than 60,000 pieces and spans 4,000 years of Asian art. Every Asian civilization is represented in the Met's Asian department, and the pieces on display include every type of decorative art, from painting and printmaking to sculpture and metalworking. The department is well-known for its comprehensive collection of Chinese calligraphy and painting, as well as for its Nepalese and Tibetan works. However, not only "art" and ritual objects are represented in the collection; many of the best-known pieces are functional objects. The Asian wing even contains a complete Ming Dynasty garden court, modeled on a courtyard in the Garden of the Master of the Fishing Nets in Suzhou.
The Costume Institute
The Museum of Costume Art was founded by Aline Bernstein and Irene Lewisohn.In 1937 they merged with the Met and became its Costume Institute department. Today, its collection contains more than 80,000 costumes and accessories. Due to the fragile nature of the items in the collection, the Costume Institute does not maintain a permanent installation. Instead, every year it holds two separate shows in the Met's galleries using costumes from its collection, with each show centering on a specific designer or theme. In past years, Costume Institute shows organized around famous designers such as Chanel and Gianni Versace have drawn significant crowds to the Met. The Costume Institute's annual Benefit Gala, co-chaired by Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, is an extremely popular, if exclusive, event in the fashion world; in 2007, the 700 available tickets started at $6,500 per person.
Drawings and prints
Melencolia I by Albrecht Dürer
Though other departments contain significant numbers of drawings and prints, the Drawings and Prints department specifically concentrates on North American pieces and western European works produced after the Middle Ages. Currently, the Drawings and Prints collection contains more than 11,000 drawings, 1.5 million prints, and twelve thousand illustrated books. The collection has been steadily growing ever since the first bequest of 670 drawings donated to the museum by Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1880. The great masters of European painting, who produced many more sketches and drawings than actual paintings, are extensively represented in the Drawing and Prints collection. The department's holdings contain major drawings by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Rembrandt, as well as prints and etchings by Van Dyck, Dürer, and Degas among many others.
Hippo William is a mascot of the Met
Though the majority of the Met's initial holdings of Egyptian art came from private collections, items uncovered during the museum's own archeological excavations, carried out between 1906 and 1941, constitute almost half of the current collection. More than 36,000 separate pieces of Egyptian art from the Paleolithic era through the Roman era constitute the Met's Egyptian collection, and almost all of them are on display in the museum's massive wing of 40 Egyptian galleries. Among the most valuable pieces in the Met's Egyptian collection are a set of 24 wooden models, discovered in a tomb in Deir el-Bahri in 1920. These models depict, in unparalleled detail, a cross-section of Egyptian life in the early Middle Kingdom: boats, gardens, and scenes of daily life are represented in miniature. However, the popular centerpiece of the Egyptian Art department continues to be the Temple of Dendur. Dismantled by the Egyptian government to save it from rising waters caused by the building of the Aswan High Dam, the large sandstone temple was given to the United States in 1965 and assembled in the Met's Sackler Wing in 1978. Situated in a large room, partially surrounded by a reflecting pool and illuminated by a wall of windows opening onto Central Park, the Temple of Dendur is one of the Met's most enduring attractions. The oldest items at the Met, a set of Archeulian flints from Deir el-Bahri which date from the Lower Paleolithic period (between 300,000 - 75,000 BC), are part of the Egyptian collection.
Young Woman with a Water Pitcher by Johannes Vermeer
Though the Met's collection of European paintings numbers only around 2,200 pieces, it contains many of the world's most instantly recognizable paintings. The bulk of the Met's purchasing has always been in this department, primarily focusing on Old Masters and nineteenth-century European paintings, with an emphasis on French, Italian and Dutch artists. Many great artists are represented in remarkable depth in the Met's holdings: the museum owns thirty-seven paintings by Monet, twenty-one oils by Cézanne, and eighteen Rembrandts including Aristotle With a Bust of Homer. The Met's five paintings by Vermeer represent the largest collection of the artist's work anywhere in the world. Other highlights of the collection include Van Gogh's Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat, Pieter Bruegel the Elder's The Harvesters, Georges de La Tour's The Fortune Teller, El Greco's View of Toledo, Raphael's Colonna Altarpiece, Botticelli's Last Communion of St Jerome, and Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Socrates. In recent decades, the Met has carried out a policy of deaccessioning its "minor" holdings in order to purchase a smaller number of "world-class" pieces. Though this policy remains controversial, it has gained a number of outstanding (and outstandingly expensive) masterpieces for the European Paintings collection, beginning with Velázquez's Juan de Pareja in 1971. A more recent purchase is Duccio's Madonna and Child, which cost the museum more than $45 million, more than twice the amount it had paid for any previous painting. The painting itself is only slightly larger than 9 by 6 inches, but has been called "the Met's Mona Lisa".
European sculpture and decorative arts
European sculpture court
The European Sculpture and Decorative Arts collection is one of the largest departments at the Met, holding in excess of 50,000 separate pieces from the 1400s through the early twentieth century. Though the collection is particularly concentrated in Renaissance sculpture—much of which can be seen in situ surrounded by contemporary furnishings and decoration—it also contains comprehensive holdings of furniture, jewelry, glass and ceramic pieces, tapestries, textiles, and timepieces and mathematical instruments. Visitors can enter dozens of completely furnished period rooms, transplanted in their entirety into the Met's galleries. The collection even includes an entire sixteenth-century patio from the Spanish castle of Vélez Blanco, reconstructed in a two-story gallery. Sculptural highlights of the sprawling department include Bernini's Bacchanal, a cast of Rodin's The Burghers of Calais, and several unique pieces by Houdon, including his Bust of Voltaire and his famous portrait of his daughter Sabine.
Greek and Roman art
The Met's collection of Greek and Roman art contains more than 35,000 works dated through A.D. 312. The Greek and Roman collection dates back to the founding of the museum—in fact, the museum's first accessioned object was a Roman sarcophagus, still currently on display. Though the collection naturally concentrates on items from ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, these historical regions represent a wide range of cultures and artistic styles, from classic Greek black-figure and red-figure vases to carved Roman tunic pins. Several highlights of the collection include the Euphronios krater depicting the death of Sarpedon (whose ownership has since been transferred to the Republic of Italy), the monumental Amathus sarcophagus, and a magnificently detailed Etruscan chariot known as the "Monteleone chariot". The collection also contains many pieces from far earlier than the Greek or Roman empires—among the most remarkable are a collection of early Cycladic sculptures from the mid-third millennium BCE, many so abstract as to seem almost modern. The Greek and Roman galleries also contain several large classical wall paintings and reliefs from different periods, including an entire reconstructed bedroom from a noble villa in Boscoreale, excavated after its entombment by the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79. In 2007, the Met's Greek and Roman galleries were expanded to approximately 60,000 square feet (6,000 m2), allowing the majority of the collection to be on permanent display
The Met's collection of Islamic art is not confined strictly to religious art, though a significant number of the objects in the Islamic collection were originally created for religious use or as decorative elements in mosques. Much of the 12,000 strong collection consists of secular items, including ceramics and textiles, from Islamic cultures ranging from Spain to North Africa to Central Asia. The Islamic Art department's collection of miniature paintings from Iran and Mughal India are a highlight of the collection. Calligraphy both religious and secular is well-represented in the Islamic Art department, from the official decrees of Suleiman the Magnificent to a number of Qur'an manuscripts reflecting different periods and styles of calligraphy. As with many other departments at the Met, the Islamic Art galleries contain many interior pieces, including the entire reconstructed Nur Al-Din Room from an early 18th century house in Damascus. The Islamic Arts galleries are undergoing expansion since 2002 and are projected to be opened early 2011. Until that time, a narrow selection of items from the collection are on temporary display throughout the museum.
Robert Lehman Collection
On the passing of banker Robert Lehman in 1969, his Foundation donated close to 3,000 works of art to the museum. Housed in the "Robert Lehman Wing," the museum refers to the collection as "one of the most extraordinary private art collections ever assembled in the United States". To emphasize the personal nature of the Robert Lehman Collection, the Met housed the collection in a special set of galleries which evoked the interior of Lehman's richly decorated townhouse; this intentional separation of the Collection as a "museum within the museum" met with mixed criticism and approval at the time, though the acquisition of the collection was seen as a coup for the Met. Unlike other departments at the Met, the Robert Lehman collection does not concentrate on a specific style or period of art; rather, it reflects Lehman's personal interests. Lehman the collector concentrated heavily on paintings of the Italian Renaissance, particularly the Sienese school. Paintings in the collection include masterpieces by Botticelli and Domenico Veneziano, as well as works by a significant number of Spanish painters, El Greco and Goya among them. Lehman's collection of drawings by the Old Masters, featuring works by Rembrandt and Dürer, is particularly valuable for its breadth and quality. Princeton University Press has documented the massive collection in a multi-volume book series published as "The Robert Lehman Collection Catalogues."
The main library at the Met is the Thomas J. Watson Library, named after its benefactor. The Watson Library primarily collects books related to the history of art, including exhibition catalogues and auction sale publications, and generally attempts to reflect the emphasis of the museum's permanent collection. Several of the museum's departments have their own specialized libraries relating to their area of expertise. The Watson Library and the individual departments' libraries also hold substantial examples of early or historically important books which are works of art in their own right. Among these are books by Dürer and Athanasius Kircher, as well as editions of the seminal Surrealist magazine "VVV" and a copy of "Le Description de l'Egypte," commissioned in 1803 by Napoleon Bonaparte and considered one of the greatest achievements of French publishing.
Several of the departmental libraries are open to members of the public without prior appointment. The Library and Teacher Resource Center, Ruth and Harold Uris Center for Education, is open to visitors of all ages to study art and art history and to learn about the Museum, its exhibitions and permanent collection. The Robert Goldwater Library in the department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas documents the visual arts of sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific Islands, and Native and Precolumbian America. It is open to adult researchers, including college and graduate students. Most of the other departmental libraries are for museum staff only or are open to the general public by appointment only.
The Limbourg brothers' Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry
The Met's collection of medieval art consists of a comprehensive range of Western art from the 4th century through the early 16th century, as well as Byzantine and pre-medieval European antiquities not included in the Ancient Greek and Roman collection. Like the Islamic collection, the Medieval collection contains a broad range of two- and three-dimensional art, with religious objects heavily represented. In total, the Medieval Art department's permanent collection numbers about 11,000 separate objects, divided between the main museum building on Fifth Avenue and The Cloisters.
The medieval collection in the main Metropolitan building, centered on the first-floor medieval gallery, contains about six thousand separate objects. While a great deal of European medieval art is on display in these galleries, most of the European pieces are concentrated at the Cloisters (see below). However, this allows the main galleries to display much of the Met's Byzantine art side-by-side with European pieces. The main gallery is host to a wide range of tapestries and church and funerary statuary, while side galleries display smaller works of precious metals and ivory, including reliquary pieces and secular items. The main gallery, with its high arched ceiling, also serves double duty as the annual site of the Met's elaborately decorated Christmas tree.
The Cloisters was a principal project of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who was a major benefactor of the Met. Located in Fort Tryon Park and completed in 1938, it is a separate building dedicated solely to medieval art. The Cloisters collection was originally that of a separate museum, assembled by George Grey Barnard and acquired in toto by Rockefeller in 1925 as a gift to the Met.
The Cloisters are so named on account of the five medieval French cloisters whose salvaged structures were incorporated into the modern building, and the five thousand objects at the Cloisters are strictly limited to medieval European works. The collection exhibited here features many items of outstanding beauty and historical importance; among these are the Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry illustrated by the Limbourg Brothers in 1409, the Romanesque altar cross known as the "Cloisters Cross" or "Bury Cross," and the seven heroically detailed tapestries depicting the Hunt of the Unicorn.
With more than 10,000 artworks, primarily by European and American artists, the modern art collection occupies 60,000 square feet (6,000 m2), of gallery space and contains many iconic modern works. Cornerstones of the collection include Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein, Jasper Johns's White Flag, Jackson Pollock's Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), and Max Beckmann's triptych Beginning. Certain artists are represented in remarkable depth, for a museum whose focus is not exclusively on modern art: for example, the collection contains forty paintings by Paul Klee, spanning his entire career. Due to the Met's long history, "contemporary" paintings acquired in years past have often migrated to other collections at the museum, particularly to the American and European Paintings departments.
The Met's collection of musical instruments, with about five thousand examples of musical instruments from all over the world, is virtually unique among major museums. The collection began in 1889 with a donation of several hundred instruments by Lucy W. Drexel, but the department's current focus came through donations over the following years by Mary Elizabeth Adams, wife of John Crosby Brown. Instruments were (and continue to be) included in the collection not only on aesthetic grounds, but also insofar as they embodied technical and social aspects of their cultures of origin. The modern Musical Instruments collection is encyclopedic in scope; every continent is represented at virtually every stage of its musical life. Highlights of the department's collection include several Stradivari violins, a collection of Asian instruments made from precious metals, and the oldest surviving piano, a 1720 model by Bartolomeo Cristofori. Many of the instruments in the collection are playable, and the department encourages their use by holding concerts and demonstrations by guest musicians.
The Met's collection of photographs, numbering more than 20,000 in total, is centered on five major collections plus additional acquisitions by the museum. Alfred Stieglitz, a famous photographer himself, donated the first major collection of photographs to the museum, which included a comprehensive survey of Photo-Secessionist works, a rich set of master prints by Edward Steichen, and an outstanding collection of Stieglitz's photographs from his own studio. The Met supplemented Stieglitz's gift with the 8,500-piece Gilman Paper Company Collection, the Rubel Collection, and the Ford Motor Company Collection, which respectively provided the collection with early French and American photography, early British photography, and post-WWI American and European photography. The museum also acquired Walker Evans's personal collection of photographs, a particular coup considering the high demand for his works. Though the department gained a permanent gallery in 1997, not all of the department's holdings are on display at any given time, due to the sensitive materials represented in the photography collection. However, the Photographs department has produced some of the best-received temporary exhibits in the Met's recent past, including a Diane Arbus retrospective and an extensive show devoted to spirit photography.
A Roof Garden scene in September 2008, exhibition by Jeff Koons.
The Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden exists towards the southern end of the museum. It offers views of Central Park and the Manhattan skyline, and features a variety of outdoor sculpture exhibitions. With food and drinks available, the Roof Garden is a popular museum spot during the mild-weathered months.
The museum often hosts special exhibitions, often focusing on the works of one artist that have been loaned out from a variety of other museums and sources for the duration of the exhibition.
Acquisitions and deaccessioning
During the 1970s, under the directorship of Thomas Hoving, the Met revised its deaccessioning policy. Under the new policy, the Met set its sights on acquiring "world-class" pieces, regularly funding the purchases by selling mid- to high-value items from its collection. Though the Met had always sold duplicate or minor items from its collection to fund the acquisition of new pieces, the Met's new policy was significantly more aggressive and wide-ranging than before, and allowed the deaccessioning of items with higher values which would normally have precluded their sale. The new policy provoked a great deal of criticism (in particular, from the New York Times) but had its intended effect.
Many of the items then purchased with funds generated by the more liberal deaccessioning policy are now considered the "stars" of the Met's collection, including Velázquez's Juan de Pareja and the Euphronios krater depicting the death of Sarpedon. In the years since the Met began its new deaccessioning policy, other museums have begun to emulate it with aggressive deaccessioning programs of their own. The Met has continued the policy in recent years, selling such valuable pieces as Edward Steichen's 1904 photograph The Pond-Moonlight (of which another copy was already in the Met's collection) for a record price of $2.9 million.
In popular culture
The Great Hall
* The Met was famously used as the setting for much of the Newbery Medal-winning children's book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, in which the two young protagonists run away from home and secretly stay several nights in the museum. However, Michelangelo's Angel statue, central to the book's plot, is purely fictional and not actually part of the museum's collection.
* The 1948 film Portrait of Jennie was filmed at the both the Museum and The Cloisters.
* Blair Waldorf, Serena van der Woodsen, and a few select classmates at the Constance Billard School for Girls from Gossip Girl TV series usually eat their lunch on the steps of the Met.
* The Met was featured as the first level in the tactical first-person shooter Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear
* The 1999 version of The Thomas Crown Affair uses the Met as a major setting; however, only the exterior scenes were shot at the museum, with the interior scenes filmed on soundstages.
* In 1983, there was a Sesame Street special entitled Don't Eat the Pictures: Sesame Street at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the cast goes to visit the museum on-location.
* An episode of Inspector Gadget entitled "Art Heist" had Gadget and Penny and Brain travel to the Met, with Gadget being assigned to protect the artwork. But M.A.D. Agents steal the masterpieces and plan to replace them with fakes.
* In the 2007 movie I Am Legend, the main character, Dr. Robert Neville, is shown fishing in the reflecting pool in front of the Temple of Dendur in the Sackler Wing.
* The Met is featured in a season four episode of Project Runway, where five remaining designers must create an outfit based on a work of art.
* In season 9 of the television show Friends, Joey takes his love interest, Charlie, to the museum to try to impress her. He does not know anything about the artwork at the Met, so he memorizes information about specific pieces, but takes Charlie in the wrong direction when they enter, so his plan backfires.
* GTA IV features a museum named the Libertonian, based on the Met.
* In the novel The Last Templar by Raymond Khoury, the Met is the setting for the crime scene at the start of the book and much of the story line is based around it.
THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART
The Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrates artistic creativity from across the
globe and from all times. Thus, our distinguished collection of African Art
has special signifi cance both because of its aesthetic excellence and because
our strong collections in all artistic traditions complement one another so
profoundly. We therefore take the greatest pleasure in putting forward this
publication, The Art of Africa: A Resource for Educators. Christa Clark, Curator of Africa,
the Americas, and the Pacifi c at the Newark Museum, Alisa LaGamma, Curator
of African Art at the Metropolitan Museum, and the Museum’s Education staff
have worked together to select and shape the content to be especially useful to
teachers and students.
We also thank with special gratitude Mr. and Mrs. Marvin H. Schein for making
this effort possible. We know that the educational value of this material will be
realized in classrooms throughout New York and across the world for many years
Philippe de Montebello
Frederick P. and Sandra P. Rose
Associate Director for Education
Curator in Charge
Department of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas
Many colleagues participated in the development of this publication. We were
fortunate to work with Christa Clarke, Curator of Africa, the Americas, and the
Pacifi c at the Newark Museum, who we commend for writing such a clear and
informative text. Heartfelt gratitude and thanks go to the staff of the Metropolitan
Museum’s Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas under the
guidance of Julie Jones, Curator in Charge. Alisa LaGamma, Curator of African Art,
provided invaluable expertise and advice in the development of this project for
which we are truly grateful. Virgina Lee-Webb and Ross Day were generous with
their assistance. Timely, indispensable help also came from Yaelle Biro, Justin
Marquis, Laura Melnyczenko, and Hillit Zwick.
Invaluable support and insight came from Metropolitan Museum educators
and colleagues who helped shape this publication to meet the particular needs
of teachers: William Crow, Deborah Howes, Catherine Fukushima, Kent Lydecker,
Nicholas Ruocco, Edith Watts, Randolph Williams, and Barbara Woods. Karen
Ohland and John Welch offered support and guidance. Christina Park researched
comparative images. Rebecca Arkenberg wrote the lesson plans with help from
Edith Watts. Emily Roth, Naomi Niles, and Vivian Wick compiled the list of
selected resources. Catherine Fukushima shepherded the project in the early
stages together with Merantine Hens, who coordinated the many steps of editing
throughout. Masha Turchinsky directed the design and managed production
overall. Alice Dow Walker coordinated the various culminating aspects of
production. Many thanks to Paul Caro and Jackie Neale-Chadwick for their
imaging expertise and to Kevin Park for printing supervision. Thanks to Teresa
Russo for her help on the CD-ROM and to Jessica Glass and Marla Mitchnick for
their assistance in preparing the DVD. Educational Media interns Emily Nemens
and Scott Niichel provided welcome help.
As always, we greatly appreciate the continued support of Christine Scornavacca
Coulson and the Development staff. We also extend our thanks to Barbara Bridgers,
Einar Brendalen, Thomas Ling, and Karin Willis of the Museum’s Photograph
Studio. Philomena Mariani edited the manuscript with care and speed. Special
thanks to Lisa S. Park for the handsome design of this publication.
Overview of the Collection
The African art collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art is celebrated as
one of the most important housed in an art museum. Its history begins in the
1940s when Nelson Rockefeller undertook the project of amassing an extensive
collection of African, Oceanic, and Precolumbian art. At the time, Rockefeller was
president of the Museum of Modern Art and his interest in these fi elds derived
from their historic infl uence on the Western avant-garde. MoMA’s sponsorship
of a series of landmark exhibitions of non-Western art beginning in 1935 and
Rockefeller’s close friendship with its director, René d’Harnoncourt, ultimately
led to Rockefeller’s founding in 1954 of the Museum of Primitive Art, a pioneering
private institution located across the street from MoMA. Art historian Robert
Goldwater served as the MPA’s director, advising Rockefeller on acquisitions
and developing an infl uential exhibition program. In 1969 Rockefeller signed an
agreement transferring the MPA to The Metropolitan Museum of Art to be housed
within a new wing. Included in this gift were 3,300 works of art, a specialized
library, and a photographic archive. Named for Nelson Rockefeller’s son, who
collected many of the Asmat works from Irian Jaya, western New Guinea, The
Michael C. Rockefeller Wing was opened to the public in 1978. This addition
made an essential contribution to the encyclopedic nature of the Metropolitan’s
collections. Since that time, the collection has continued to grow through
acquisitions and gifts to include more than 11,000 works from Africa, the Pacifi c
Islands, and North, Central, and South America. Two major additions to the
African component of the Metropolitan’s collection, each comprising more than
100 works, are a series of Dogon objects from Mali given by Lester Wunderman
between 1978 and 1987 and a collection of artworks from the court of Benin in
Nigeria given by Klaus Perls in 1991. From its beginnings, the Metropolitan’s
African collection was conceived as a fi ne arts collection focused on artistic
traditions from Africa south of the Sahara. While it originally emphasized
sculptural traditions from western and central Africa, over the last several
decades the collection has come to embrace expressive traditions in other media
such as textiles as well as those of eastern and southern Africa.
Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Goals and Design of this Resource
Works of art communicate vital and important aspects of the cultures in which
they were created. By studying art from Africa, students come to understand the
central role it plays in the customs, belief systems, social organizations, and
political systems of African societies. This publication presents African art and
culture through a focus on primarily traditional sculpture, textiles, metalwork,
and ceramics in the African art collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Educators and their students can study these works of art solely in the classroom
or, ideally, in preparation for a visit to the Metropolitan or to their local museum.
In these pages, we provide background information for educators about African
culture and history as well as detailed information about selected works of art.
Teachers may adapt the content to the interests, skills, and abilities of their
students and may use suggested interdisciplinary connections to social studies,
language arts, and studio arts curricula.
This resource is organized so that a teacher can incorporate study of the
artworks into a single lesson, a series of lessons, or an entire unit of study. It
begins with a map and an introduction to Africa: the continent’s geography,
peoples and cultures, and history. The next section discusses the role of visual
expression in Africa, covering important topics such as aesthetics and styles,
the roles of artists and patrons, and materials and techniques. Forty works of art
in the Museum’s collection are described in detail, accompanied by suggested
discussion questions to encourage students to look closely at, analyze, and
interpret the art.
The classroom applications section includes lesson plans based on thematic
groupings of the artworks and activities that will help the teacher create a focused
unit of study around some of the key concepts associated with African art.
Comparisons for classroom discussion present selected pairs of artworks with
questions, offering an opportunity for further discussion that will help students
discern the distinctive features of each work. (These pairs are also available on
the enclosed CD for projection in the classroom.)
A glossary provides defi nitions of words that are bolded on fi rst mention in
the text. A pronunciation guide offers approximate pronunciations for selected
African words and names mentioned in this resource. An introduction to the
video provides background information that will be useful prior to viewing
footage of performers dancing headdresses similar to some of those included
in this publication. The selected resources section contains bibliographies,
online resources (the Museum’s Timeline of Art History is particularly useful), and
a videography. These will be helpful in gathering the additional information
teachers may need to make an exploration of African art stimulating and relevant
to their curriculum.
Goals for Students
To become familiar with the variety of visual expression in the traditional art of
To understand how African artists use abstraction, idealization, and expressive
To understand that African art plays a central role in:
• Mediating between the world of the living and the spirit world
• Expressing community ideals
• Defi ning power and leadership
• Protecting and healing
• Celebrating and commemorating cycles of life, both human and agricultural
To become comfortable talking about art. As students describe what they see
and share interpretations about the meanings of works of art, they will develop
language and critical thinking skills.
Introduction to African Art
Introduction to Africa
Today, Africa is considered to be the cradle of human ancestry, from which we
may all trace our descent. Based on the evidence to date, most scientists concur
that humankind evolved and modern humans emerged on the African continent.
Recent discoveries of cultural artifacts dating back 70,000 years also suggest
that the earliest forms of visual expression may be found in Africa. For many
thousands of years, Africans have contributed to the cultural heritage of the
world, creating masterful works of astonishing innovation and creativity. Africa’s
rich artistic legacy is the subject of this publication, which is based on the superb
African art collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Metropolitan’s Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the
Americas historically has focused on the fi ne arts traditions of sub-Saharan
Africa. The majority of works in the collection relate to historical traditions from
western and central Africa, regions with the highest concentration of fi gurative
sculpture. In recent years, the scope of the collection has expanded to embrace
works from eastern and southern Africa. Artworks from the African continent
are represented in other collections within the Metropolitan, most notably the
Department of Egyptian Art, but also the Islamic Art, Contemporary Art, and
Photographs departments. The ancient arts of Egypt are not included in this
resource because they are the subject of another Metropolitan resource for
educators. Finally, while there have been important developments in modern
and contemporary African art since the mid-twentieth century, this publication
focuses on tradition-based genres of African art.
Africa is the second largest continent, after Asia, in terms of both size and
population. Contemporary Africa is comprised of fi fty-four different nations,
whose borders refl ect the legacy of the continent’s division under colonialism.
Africa is further characterized and defi ned by great geographic and ecological
diversity. To the north and south are large deserts, while on the western coast,
a broad swath of rainforest straddles either side of the equator. The majority of
the continent, however, consists of savannah grasslands. The three great rivers
that run through different parts of the continent—the Nile, the Niger, and the
Zaire—have always been important means of contact and exchange within Africa.
Overseas communication and trade, however, were limited historically due
to a scarcity of safe harbors along Africa’s relatively smooth coastline and the
diffi culties of travel in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans.
The Sahara, the world’s largest desert, has long served as a natural division
between the northern part of the continent and the lands lying below. Once
fertile land, the Sahara region suffered from severe drought and became a desert
sometime around 2000 B.C. As a result, northern Africa had greater contact
with the Mediterranean world than sub-Saharan Africa and was also introduced
earlier to Christianity and Islam. The traditions of northern Africa have therefore
been regarded as distinct from those of sub-Saharan Africa and historically
excluded from discussions of African art. Scholars today, however, recognize that
sub-Saharan Africa was not as isolated as once widely thought and that trans-
Saharan trade, from at least the fi fth century onward, ensured continuous cultural
interaction and exchange.
Peoples and Cultures
Today, over 680 million people live in Africa. Although some regions remain
sparsely inhabited, others are densely populated. The West African nation of
Nigeria, for example, has one-fi fth of the entire continent’s population. About
a third of all Africans live in large cities such as Lagos (Nigeria), the continent’s
most populous city with 13.5 million people. Other major urban centers in
contemporary Africa include Cairo (Egypt), Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of
Congo), Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire), Dakar (Senegal), and Johannesburg, Cape Town,
and Pretoria (South Africa). The majority of Africans, however, live in more rural
areas where their lifestyle centers on agricultural activities.
In those parts of the continent that are not heavily urbanized, Africa’s
geography and climate have especially impacted the development of different
artistic traditions. In agricultural communities, seasonal patterns of rainfall
and drought affect cultivation and, by extension, their cultural practices. An
alternation between rainy and dry seasons is seen throughout much of Africa, in
varying degrees. Dry seasons allow opportunities for part-time artisans to create
artifacts and for people to organize festivals and other large-scale social events
that employ such art forms. Certain areas, such as southwestern Africa and parts
of eastern Africa’s interior, also had (and continue to have) frequent droughts.
This has forced populations to migrate often or adopt a nomadic lifestyle. As a
result, their artistic expression has focused on relatively ephemeral and personal
traditions such as body ornamentation, rather than larger scale wooden sculpture.
Throughout the continent, there is found a diversity of societies, languages,
and cultures. It is estimated that there are well over 1,000 distinct languages in
Africa, making it the most linguistically varied of all the continents. In Nigeria
alone, more than 250 different languages are spoken. Important regional
languages, spoken over broad geographic areas by people of varied ethnicity,
include Arabic in northern Africa, Swahili in eastern Africa, and Hausa and
Mandinka in parts of western Africa. English, French, and Portuguese were
introduced during the colonial period and remain in wide usage today.
Culturally, Africans defi ne themselves in many different ways: by occupational
caste, village, kinship group, regional origin, and nationality. “Peoples” or
“cultures” are the preferred terms when referring to ethnic identities; “tribe”—a
word sometimes applied to African peoples or societies—is an inappropriate,
even inaccurate term, and should be avoided. Based on a concept developed
by nineteenth-century Western social theorists, “tribe” was used to describe a
group of people sharing a common language, history, geographic region, and
sociopolitical organization. In reality, ethnicity and social identity are much more
complex, as Africans may identify themselves in multiple ways. For example,
an individual may be simultaneously Nigerian, a resident of the Delta State,
Ijo (a broad ethnic designation), and Kalabari (an eastern subgroup of the
Ijo). Furthermore, the term “tribe” refl ects misleading historical and cultural
assumptions, as it often implies a kind of cultural backwardness with derogatory
Humankind’s origins and the beginnings of cultural expression may be traced
to Africa. Recent discoveries in the southern tip of Africa provide remarkable
evidence of the earliest stirrings of human creativity. Ocher plaques with
engraved designs, made some 70,000 years ago, represent some of humankind’s
earliest attempts at visual expression. Although much remains to be learned
about Africa’s ancient civilizations through further archaeological research, such
discoveries suggest tantalizing possibilities for rich insights into human as well
as artistic evolution.
Rock paintings depicting domesticated animals provide artistic evidence of
the existence of agricultural communities that developed in both the Sahara
region and southern Africa by around 7000 B.C. As the Sahara began to dry up,
sometime before 3000 B.C., these farming communities moved away. In the north,
this led to the emergence of art-producing civilizations based along the Nile, the
world’s longest river. Egypt, one of the world’s earliest nation-states, was unifi ed
as a kingdom by 3100 B.C. Further south along the Nile, one of the earliest of the
Nubian kingdoms was centered at Kerma in present-day Sudan and dominated
trade networks linking central Africa to Egypt for almost one thousand years
beginning around 2500 B.C.
A corpus of sophisticated terracotta sculptures found over a broad geographic
area in present-day Nigeria provides the earliest evidence of a settled community
with ironworking technology south of the Sahara. The artistic creations of this
culture are referred to as Nok, after the village where the fi rst terracotta was
discovered, and date to 500 B.C. to 200 A.D., a period of time coinciding with
ancient Greek civilization. Although Nok terracottas continue to be unearthed,
no organized excavations have been undertaken and little is known about the
culture that produced these sculptures. Terracotta heads, buried around 500
A.D., have also been found in the eastern Transvaal region of South Africa. These
important ancient artistic traditions are underrepresented in Western museums
today, including the Metropolitan, due to restrictions regarding the export of
archaeological materials. However, examples of these terracotta traditions may
be seen in the Timeline of Art History on the Metropolitan Museum’s website (www.
The first millennium A.D. witnessed the urbanization of a number of societies
just south of the Sahara, in the broad stretch of savanna referred to as the
western Sudan. The strategic location of the Inland Niger Delta, lying in a fertile
region between the Bani and Niger rivers, contributed to its emergence as an
economic and cultural force in the area. Excavations there at the site of Jennejeno
(“Old Jenne,” also known as Djenne-jeno) suggest the presence of an urban
center populated as early as 2,000 years ago. The city continued to thrive for many
centuries, becoming an important crossroads of a trans-Saharan trading network.
Terracotta fi gures and fragments unearthed in the region reveal the rich sculptural
heritage of a sophisticated urban culture (image 1).
By the ninth century, trade across the Sahara had intensifi ed, contributing
to the rise of large state societies with diverse cultural traditions along trade
routes in the western Sudan as well as introducing Islam into the region. Initially
traversed by camel caravans beginning around the fi fth century, established trans-
Saharan trade routes ensured the lucrative exchange of gold mined in southern
West Africa and salt from the Sahara, as well as other goods. Ghana, one of the
earliest known kingdoms in this region, grew powerful by the eighth century
through its monopoly over gold mines until its eventual demise in the twelfth
century. The present-day nation of Ghana takes its name from this ancient empire,
although there is no historical or geographic connection. In the early thirteenth
century, the kingdom of Mali ascended under the leadership of Sundiata Keita,
who is still revered as a culture hero in the Mande-speaking world. At its height,
this Islamic empire, which fl ourished until the seventeenth century, encompassed
an area larger than western Europe and established Africa’s fi rst university in
Timbuktu. Under the Songhai empire of the fi fteenth and sixteenth centuries, one
of the largest in Africa, the cities of Timbuktu and Jenne (also known as Djenne)
prospered as major centers of Islamic learning.
Beyond the kingdoms of the western Sudan, other centers of cultural and
artistic activity emerged elsewhere in western Africa. The art of metalworking
fl ourished as early as the ninth century at a site called Igbo-Ukwu, in what is now
southern Nigeria. Hundreds of intricate copper alloy castings discovered there
provide artistic evidence of a sophisticated and technically accomplished culture.
Nearby to the west, the ancient site of Ife, considered the cradle of Yoruba
civilization, emerged as a major metropolis by the eleventh century. Artists
working for the royal court in Ife produced a large and diverse corpus of masterful
work, including magnifi cent bronze and terracotta sculptures renowned for their
portraitlike naturalism. The rich artistic traditions of the Yoruba continue to thrive
in the present day (images 18, 19). The neighboring kingdom of Benin, which
traces its origins to Ife, established its present dynasty in the fourteenth century.
Over the next 500 years, specialist artisans working for the Benin king created
several thousand works, mostly made of luxury materials such as ivory and brass,
that offer insights into life at the royal court (images 20–22). Other state societies
emerged in the eastern and southern parts of the continent.
The Aksum empire (also known as Axum), one of the earliest Christian
states in Africa, fl ourished from the fi rst century A.D. into the eleventh century,
producing remarkable stone palaces and enormous granite funerary monoliths.
Christian faith inspired the artistic creations of later dynasties, including the
extraordinary churches of Lalibela hewn from solid rock in the thirteenth century,
and the illuminated manuscripts and other liturgical arts of the later Solomonic
era (image 37). Notable among the kingdoms that emerged in southern Africa
is Mapungubwe in present-day Zimbabwe, a stratifi ed society that arose in the
eleventh century and grew wealthy through trade with Muslim merchants along
the eastern African coast. Just to the north are the remains of an ancient city
known as Great Zimbabwe, considered one of the oldest and largest architectural
structures in sub-Saharan Africa. This massive complex of stone buildings,
spread over 1,800 acres, was constructed over 300 years beginning in the
In the fifteenth century, the age of exploration ushered in a period of sustained
engagement between Europe and Africa. The Portuguese, and later the Dutch
and English, began trade with cities along the western coast of Africa around
1450. They returned from Africa with favorable accounts of powerful kingdoms as
well as examples of African artistry commissioned from local sculptors (image
9). These exquisitely carved ivory artifacts, now known as the “Afro-Portuguese”
ivories, were brought back from early visits to the continent and became part of
the curiosity cabinets of the Renaissance nobles who sponsored exploration
Through trade, African artists were also introduced to new materials, forms,
and ideas. Although historically glass and shell beads were made indigenously,
trade with Europe in the sixteenth century introduced large quantities of
manufactured glass beads that became widely used throughout Africa (images
26, 36). European imports of copper and coral made these luxury materials more
plentiful, and artists used them in greater quantities (image 20). Artifacts of
European manufacture, such as canes and chairs, served as prototypes for the
development of new prestige items for regional leaders (images 14, 31). Along
with goods imported from Europe, the travelers also brought with them their
systems of belief, including Christianity. In some cases, such as in the central
African kingdom of Kongo, Christianity was embraced and its iconography
integrated into the artistic repertoire (image 28). In other parts of Africa, the
foreign traders themselves were sometimes represented in artworks (image 21).
Western trade with Africa was not limited to material goods such as copper,
cloth, and beads. By the sixteenth century, the transatlantic slave trade had
already begun, forcibly bringing Africans to the newly discovered Americas.
Slavery had existed in Africa (as it did elsewhere in the world) for centuries prior
to the sixteenth, and many socially stratifi ed African societies kept slaves for
domestic work. The sheer number of slaves traded across the Atlantic, however,
was unprecedented, as over 11 million Africans were brought to the Americas and
the Caribbean over a period of four centuries. Driven by commercial interests,
the slave trade peaked in the eighteenth century with the expansion of American
plantation production, and continued until the mid-nineteenth century. While
Europeans primarily profi ted from the slave trade, certain West African kingdoms,
like Dahomey, also grew wealthy and powerful by selling captives of war. By
the late eighteenth century, the slave trade began to wane as the abolitionist
Those who survived the forced migration and the notorious Middle Passage
brought their beliefs and cultural practices to the New World. Within this far-fl ung
diaspora, certain cultures—such as the Yoruba and Igbo of today’s Nigeria, and
the Kongo from present-day Democratic Republic of Congo—were especially
well represented. African slaves brought few, if any, personal items with them,
although recent archaeological investigations have yielded early African artifacts,
like the beads and shells found at the African burial grounds in New York’s
lower Manhattan, which date to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The
infl uence of Africans in the Americas is perhaps best seen in diverse forms of
cultural expression that have enriched our society tremendously. Architectural
elements such as open-front porches and sloped hip-roofs refl ect African
infl uence in the Americas. The religious practices of Haitian Vodou have roots in
the spiritual beliefs of Dahomean, Yoruba, and Kongo peoples. Some elements of
cuisine in the American South, such as gumbo and jambalaya, derive from African
food traditions. Certain musical forms, such as jazz and the blues, refl ect the
convergence of African musical practices and European-based traditions.
Although the slave trade was banned entirely by the late nineteenth century,
European involvement in Africa did not end. Instead, the desire for greater
control over Africa’s resources resulted in the colonization of the majority of
the continent by seven European countries. The Berlin Conference of 1884–85,
attended by representatives of fourteen different European powers, resulted in
the regulation of European colonization and trade in Africa. Over the next twenty
years, the continent was occupied by France, Belgium, Germany, Britain, Spain,
Italy, and Portugal. By 1914, the entire continent, with the exception of Ethiopia
and Liberia, was colonized by European nations.
The colonial period in Africa brought radical changes, disrupting local political
institutions, patterns of trade, and religious and social beliefs. The colonial era
also impacted cultural practices in Africa, as artists responded to new forms of
patronage and the introduction of new technologies as well as to their changing
social and political situations. In some cases, European patronage of local artists
resulted in stylistic change (image 35) or new forms of expression. At the same
time, many artistic traditions were characterized as “primitive” by Westerners and
discouraged or even banned.
Although African artifacts were brought to Europe as early as the sixteenth
century, it was during the colonial period that such works entered Western
collections in significant quantities, forming the basis of many museum
collections today. African artifacts were collected as personal souvenirs
or ethnographic specimens by military officers, colonial administrators,
missionaries, scientists, merchants, and other visitors to the continent. In
many of these instances of collecting, objects were gathered through voluntary
trade. In one extreme instance, an act of war initiated by Britain against one of
its colonies, thousands of royal art objects were removed from the kingdom of
Benin following its defeat by a British military expedition in 1897 (images 20–22).
European nations with colonies in Africa established ethnographic museums with
extensive collections, such as the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren,
Belgium, the Völkerkunde museums in Germany, the British Museum in London,
and the Musée de l’Homme in Paris (now housed at the Musée du Quai Branly).
In the United States, which had no colonial ties to Africa, the nascent study of
ethnography motivated the formation of collections at the American Museum
of Natural History in New York and the Field Museum in Chicago. In 1923, the
Brooklyn Museum became the first American museum to present African works
Independence movements in Africa began with the liberation of Ghana in
1957 and ended with the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa during the
1990s. The postcolonial period has been challenging, as many countries struggle
to regain stability in the aftermath of colonialism. Yet while the media often
focuses on political instability, civil unrest, and economic and health crises, these
represent only part of the story of Africa today. From its many urban centers to
more tradition-based rural villages, Africa is increasingly entering the global
marketplace. The proliferation of systems of communication, such as computers
and cell phones, throughout Africa has facilitated increased interaction with other
parts of the world. As Africa moves into the twenty-first century, hope lies in its
natural and human resources and the commitment of many Africans to work
toward a stable and prosperous future.
In spite of Africa’s political, economic, and environmental challenges, the
postcolonial period has been a time of tremendous vigor in the realm of artistic
production. Many tradition-based artistic practices continue to thrive or have
been revitalized. In Guinea, the revival of D’mba performances in the 1990s,
after decades of censorship by the Marxist government, is one example of
cultural reinvention (image 10). Similarly, in recent years, Merina weavers in the
highlands of Madagascar have begun to create brilliantly hued silk cloth known as
akotofahana, a textile tradition abandoned a century ago (image 38). Photography,
introduced on the continent in the late nineteenth century, has become a popular
medium, particularly in urban areas. Artists like Seydou Keïta, who operated a
portrait studio in Bamako, Mali, in the colonial period, set the stage for later
generations of photographers who captured the faces of newly independent
African countries (image 39).
It is also important to mention developments in modern and contemporary
African art, although these forms of African visual expression are not the focus
of this publication. During the colonial period, art schools were established
that provided training, often based on Western models, to local artists. Many
schools were initiated by Europeans, such as the Congolese Académie des Arts,
established by Pierre Romain-Desfossé in 1944 in Elisabethville, whose program
was based on those of art schools in Europe. Less frequently, the teaching of
modern art was initiated by indigenous Africans, such as Chief Aina Onabolu, who
is credited with introducing modern art in Nigeria beginning in the 1920s. Since
the mid-twentieth century, increasing numbers of African artists have engaged
local traditions in new ways or embraced a national identity through their visual
Artists in today’s Africa are the products of diverse forms of artistic training,
work in a variety of mediums, and engage local as well as global audiences with
their work. In recent decades, contemporary artists from Africa, both self-taught
and academically trained, have begun to receive international recognition. Many
artists from Africa study, work, and/or live in Europe and the United States.
Kenyan-born Magdalene Odundo, for example, was trained as an artist in schools
in Kenya and in England, where she now lives. The burnished ceramic vessels she
creates, which are purely artistic and not functional, embody her diverse sources,
including traditional Nigerian and Kenyan vessels as well as Native American
pottery traditions of New Mexico (image 40). The work of contemporary African
artists like Odundo reveals the complex realities of artistic practice in today’s
increasingly global society.
The Role of Visual Expression in Africa
Because many tradition-based African artifacts serve a specifi c function,
Westerners sometimes have not regarded them as art. We need to recognize,
however, that the concept of “art for art’s sake” is a relatively recent invention of
the Western world. Prior to the Renaissance, most art traditions around the world
were considered functional as well as aesthetic. The objects African artists create,
while useful, also embody aesthetic preferences and may be admired for their
form and composition.
Artists and patrons in many African societies express well-defi ned aesthetic
preferences and value skillful work. Studies of aesthetics in some African societies
have led to the identifi cation of certain artistic criteria for evaluating visual arts.
Among the Baule in Côte d’Ivoire, for example, a sculpture of the human fi gure
should emphasize a strong muscular body, refi ned facial features, and elaborate
hairstyle and scarifi cation patterns, all of which refl ect cultural ideals of civilized
beauty (image 13). Scholars of aesthetics in Yoruba (Nigeria) visual expression
have identifi ed criteria based on both formal elements, such as a smooth surface,
symmetrical composition, and a moderate resemblance to the subject, as well
as abstract cultural concepts, such as ase (inner power or life force) and iwa
(character or essential nature). Many African societies associate such smooth,
fi nished surfaces with cultivated refinement.
African aesthetics generally have an ethical or religious basis. An artwork
considered “beautiful” is often also believed to be “good,” in the sense that it
exemplifi es and upholds moral values. The fact that, in many societies, the words
for beautiful and good are the same suggests a strong correspondence between
these two ideas. The ability of an artifact to work effectively, whether that means
connecting with the spiritual realm or imparting a lesson to initiates, may also be
a standard for determining the “beauty” of an artifact.
Although in the Western world, aesthetics is often equated with beauty, artists
in some African cultures create works that are not intended to be beautiful. Such
works are deliberately horrifi c in order to convey their fearsome powers and
thereby elicit a strong reaction in the viewer (images 6, 23).
The Human Figure
The human fi gure is the main subject that traditionally has engaged African
artists. African fi gurative sculpture usually departs from natural proportions.
There is often a conceptual basis behind artistic conventions such as the
simplifi cation and exaggeration of the human features. For example, in many
African artworks, the head appears proportionately larger than the body. This
formal emphasis has symbolic meaning, as the head is believed to have a special
role in guiding one’s destiny and success in many African societies. African
artists also employ scale for symbolic effect in multifi gure compositions, a
practice known as hierarchical representation. In these cases, the most important
individual is depicted as the largest fi gure, while those of lesser importance
decrease in size exponentially (image 22).
Animals and the Natural World
Animals with special attributes—such as antelopes, snakes, leopards, and
crocodiles—are represented in art for symbolic purposes. For example, the
nineteenth-century Fon king Guezo is represented by a buffalo, an animal
signifying strength and determination, selected as his emblem through fa
divination (image 16). Representations of animals consuming other animals
may serve as a metaphor for competing spiritual or social forces (image 19).
Their depiction is meant to encourage other, less destructive means to resolve
a diffi cult social encounter. Features of different types of animals may also be
combined into new forms that synthesize complex ideas. Among the Bamana,
for example, ci wara headdresses (image 5) are based on the features of various
antelope species and may also incorporate those of aardvarks, anteaters, and
pangolins, all highly symbolic animals. The resulting synthesis of animal forms
evokes the mythic Ci Wara, the divine force conceptualized as half man and
half antelope who introduced agricultural methods to the Bamana. Animal
symbols may also take more abstract form. In the Cameroon Grassfi elds, circular
medallions represent spiders, a symbol of supernatural wisdom, and diamondshaped
motifs refer to frogs, which stand for fertility and increase (image 26).
Some forms of symbolism in African art use plants as points of reference. On cast
plaques from Benin, a background pattern of river leaves is a symbol for Olokun,
god of the sea (image 22).
Other Forms of Symbolism
Symbols may be nonrepresentational. Geometric patterns on Bwa plank masks
have multiple levels of meaning that refer to ideals of social and moral behavior
taught to initiates (image 8). Materials also hold symbolic value. Gold foil used in
Asante regalia alludes to the sun and to life’s vital force (image 14). Indigenous
forms of writing, such as nsibidi used among various cultures in Nigeria’s Cross
River region (image 24), embody multiple levels of symbolic meaning that can
be accessed only by the initiated. Gestures, too, are a form of symbolism. In
Kongo art, a seated pose illustrates a dictum about balance, composure, and
refl ection (image 29), while a protruding tongue refers indirectly to the activation
of medicines (image 30).
Abstraction and Idealization
Realism or physical resemblance is generally not the goal of the African artist.
Many forms of African art are characterized by their visual abstraction, or
departure from representational accuracy. Artists interpret human or animal
forms creatively through innovative form and composition. The degree of
abstraction can range from idealized naturalism, as in the cast brass heads of
Benin kings (image 20), to more simplifi ed, geometrically conceived forms, as in
the Baga headdress (image 10). The decision to create abstract representations
is a conscious one, evidenced by the technical ability of African artists to create
naturalistic art, as seen, for example, in the art of Ife, in present-day Nigeria.
Idealization is frequently seen in representations of human beings. Individuals
are almost always depicted in the prime of life, never in old age or poor health.
Culturally accepted standards of moral character and physical beauty are
expressed through formal emphasis. Masks used by the women’s Sande society,
for example, present Mende cultural ideals of female beauty (image 11). Instead
of a physical likeness, the artist highlights admired features, such as narrow eyes,
a small mouth, carefully braided hair, and a ringed neck. Idealized images often
relate to expected social roles and emphasize distinctions between male and
female. In Bamana statuary, full breasts and a swelling belly highlight a woman’s
role as nurturer (image 4). At the same time, complementary male and female
pairs of fi gures express the concept of an ideal social unit through matched
gestures, stances, and expressions (image 13).
Once an artifact leaves its creator’s hands, its visual appearance may be altered
through use in ritual or performance contexts. Repeated handling of an artifact
during ceremonies can create a smoothly worn surface, while ritual applications
of palm oil may result in a lustrous sheen (image 27). During ceremonies,
decorative elements, such as beads, metal jewelry, and fabric, can be added to
a work (image 13). Applications of sacrifi cial substances and organic materials
create an encrusted surface that literally and fi guratively empowers an object
(images 6, 17). Masks and fi gurative sculptures may also be repainted from
one season to the next. Bwa masks, for example, are soaked after the harvest
and repainted red, white, and black, generally with natural vegetal or mineral
pigments but now also with European enamel paints (image 8).
Form and Meaning
While creations by African artists have been admired by Western viewers for their
formal power and beauty, it is important to understand these artifacts on their
own terms. Many African artworks were (and continue to be) created to serve a
social, religious, or political function. In its original setting, an artifact may have
different uses and embody a variety of meanings. These uses may change over
time. A mask originally created for a particular performance may be used in a
different context at a later time. Nwantantay masks, used by the southern Bwa in
Burkina Faso, may be performed during burial ceremonies and also for annual
renewal rites (image 8).
Artworks can also have different meanings for different individuals or groups.
A sculpture owned by an elite association holds deeper levels of meaning for
its members than for the general public, who may understand only its basic
meaning. The painted designs on an Ejagham headdress, for example, represent
an indigenous form of writing, the meanings of which are restricted to individuals
of the highest status and rank (image 24). Understanding the cultural contexts
and symbolic meanings of African art therefore enhances our appreciation of
Religion and the Spiritual Realm
Most traditional religions in Africa have developed at the local level and are
unique to a particular society. Common elements include a belief in a creator god,
who is rarely if ever represented in art and directly approached by worshipers.
Instead, the supreme deity is petitioned through intermediaries, or lesser spirits.
These spirits may be related to the natural world and have control over powerful
natural phenomena. For instance, nwantantay masks used by the Bwa of Burkina
Faso represent various fl ying spirits that inhabit the natural world and can offer
protection (image 8). These fl ying spirits are believed to take physical form as
insects or water fowl. In Guinea, Baga beliefs describe local water spirits, called
Niniganné, associated with both wealth and danger that take symbolic form as
snakes (image 9). Nature spirits, appealed to by Baule diviners in Côte d’Ivoire for
spiritual insights, are conceived of as grotesque beings associated with untamed
wilderness (image 13).
Other spirits represent founding ancestors, whose activities are described
in stories about the creation of the world and the beginnings of human life and
agriculture. The Dogon of Mali recount their genesis story with reference to
Nommo, a primordial being who guided an ark with the eight original ancestors
from heaven to populate the earth (image 2). Also in Mali, Bamana agricultural
ceremonies invoke Ci Wara, the half man and half antelope credited with
introducing agriculture to humanity (image 5). The original ancestors in Senufo
(Côte d’Ivoire) belief are represented by a monumental pair of male and female
fi gures exemplifying an ideal social unit (image 7).
The category of spirits believed to be most accessible to humans is that of
recently deceased ancestors, who can intercede on behalf of the living community.
Among the Akan in Ghana, ancestors are commemorated by terracotta sculptures
that, when placed in a sacred grove near the cemetery, serve as a focal point for
funeral rites and a point of contact with the deceased (image 15). Fang societies
preserved the bones of important deceased individuals in bark containers in the
belief that their relics held great spiritual power (image 27). In many large states,
a living king and leader may be regarded as divine as well. In the kingdom of Benin,
in today’s Nigeria, the Oba historically was considered semidivine and therefore
constituted the political and spiritual focus of the kingdom (images 20, 22).
In addition to indigenous religions at a local level, other religions are also
practiced throughout Africa. Christianity has existed in Egypt and northern Africa
since the second century. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church was established in
the fourth century by King Ezana, who adopted Christianity as the state religion
(image 37). In the late fi fteenth century, Christianity was introduced into sub-
Saharan Africa by Portuguese explorers and traders. Although most African
cultures did not adopt the religion, the Kongo king Afonso Mvemba a Nzinga
established Christianity as the state religion in the early sixteenth century
(image 28). During the colonial period, Christianity gained converts throughout
Islam came to Egypt after 640, then spread below the Sahara in the eighth
and ninth centuries through traders and scholars. On the east coast, Arab and
Persian colonizers introduced Islam beginning in the eighth century. Although
the acceptance of Islam or Christianity sometimes precluded the practice of
traditional religions, in many cases they coexisted or were incorporated into
preexisting beliefs. The adoption of Islam and Christianity also led to the
abandonment of many earlier forms of artistic expression.
Religious practice in Africa centers on a desire to engage the spiritual world in
the interests of social stability and well-being. Annual rites of renewal among the
Bwa, for example, are designed to seek the continued goodwill of nature spirits
(image 8). Political leaders also seek religious guidance to ensure the success
of their reign. Fon kings, for example, referenced a divination process known as
fa, which predicted the nature and character of their reign (image 16). Personal
misfortune, such as illness, death, or barrenness, or community crises, including
war or drought, are also cause to petition the spirits for guidance and assistance.
Art objects are employed as vehicles for spiritual communication in diverse
ways. Some are created for use in an altar or shrine and may receive sacrifi cial
offerings. The Dogon of Mali, for example, show gratitude to the ancestors by
offering pieces of meat in a monumental container presented to the family altar
(image 2). In the kingdom of Benin (Nigeria), cast brass heads commemorating
deceased kings are placed on royal ancestral altars, where they serve as a point
of contact with the king’s royal ancestors (image 20).
Other objects are used by diviners to attract and tap into spiritual forces.
The dazzling beauty of an expertly carved Baule fi gure sculpture lures a nature
spirit into inhabiting the sculpture, thereby aiding a diviner’s work (image 13).
Such objects themselves are often not inherently powerful but must be activated
through ritual offerings or by a knowledgeable religious specialist. Fon diviners
empower fi gurative sculptures called bocio with organic substances that ensure
their client’s health and well-being (image 17). Similarly, Kongo ritual objects
known as nkisi derive their potency from various substances, both organic and
man-made, added to a carved figure by a ritual specialist (image 30).
The unseen forces of nature or the spiritual world are called upon to serve
a variety of purposes, including communicating with the spirits, honoring
ancestors, healing sickness, or reinforcing societal standards, through masked
performances. Masquerades involve the active participation of dancers,
musicians, and even the audience, in addition to the masked dancer, who serves
as the vehicle through which these invisible powers become manifest. By donning
a mask and its associated costume, the dancer transcends his own identity and is
transformed into a powerful spiritual being. Among the Dogon, masks are worn at
dama, a collective funerary rite for men whose goal is to ensure safe passage of the
deceased’s spirit to the world of the ancestors (image 3). Masked performances
by members of the Bamana Komo association convey knowledge of their history,
beliefs, and rituals to initiated members (image 6). The massive sculpted
headdress known as D’mba among the Baga is seen as a symbol of cultural
reinvention and appears on various occasions marking personal and communal
growth (image 10). Among the Mende and their neighbors, masquerades of the
Sande society encourage and celebrate young female initiates and offer a model
of feminine beauty and spiritual power (image 11).
Art and Politics
Political institutions in Africa that predate European colonization have ranged
from large, centralized kingdoms led by a single ruler to smaller, village-based
societies. Centralized states may vary in size and complexity but are generally
ruled by a chief or king, supported by a hierarchical bureaucracy. In many different
societies, leaders are considered to be semidivine. In less centralized societies,
power is not vested in a single individual. Instead, authority may be exercised by
family heads, a council of elders, or local social or political institutions. African
political institutions were dramatically impacted by colonial rule. The role of
traditional rulers continues to change in postindependence Africa, where modern
states are governed by national leaders.
In centralized states, leaders have historically played an important role as
patrons of the arts. Often, leaders held monopolies over the materials used and
controlled artistic production as well (image 20). They commissioned a wide
range of prestige objects, distinguished by the lavish use of luxury materials
(images 14, 16, 20–22, 26), as well as complex architectural programs (image 18).
Works made of metal, ivory, or beads were not only visually spectacular, but also
reminded the public of the king’s wealth and power. Such art forms underscored
the king’s fundamental difference from—and superiority to—his subjects.
Royal arts are often used in ceremonial contexts that mark and legitimize
political authority. Handheld objects, such as flywhisks, staffs, and pipes, are used
as personal regalia to indicate rank and position within the court (images 14, 26).
Special seats of office (images 31, 34) and clothes and regalia made of expensive
materials (image 21) distinguish the leader’s exalted position and set him apart,
both literally and figuratively, from his subjects. Larger works legitimize political
power to a broad public. Portraits of past leaders document dynastic lines of
leadership and serve as a visual reminder of the present king’s legacy (images 20,
25, 29). Such portraits generally present an idealized depiction of a youthful and
vigorous king and emphasize the various trappings of royalty.
Among smaller, village-based societies, in which governance is distributed
among local associations, artworks do not glorify a particular leader. Instead of
lavish displays of royal regalia, masks and figures are used as agents of social
control or education. Such works are generally commissioned by a group of
individuals, such as a council of elders or members of a religious association.
They give visual form to spiritual forces whose power is enlisted to maintain
order and well-being in a community. Sometimes, artworks are deliberately
fearsome, employing elements of the natural world considered inherently
powerful, such as sacrificial blood or medicinal plants (image 6). In other
contexts, the sculpture’s imagery presents cultural ideals held collectively by
the society (images 5, 7, 12, 24).
Rites of Passage
In many African societies, art plays an important role in various rites of passage
throughout the cycle of life. These rituals mark an individual’s transition from
one stage of life to another. The birth of a child, a youth’s coming of age, and the
funeral of a respected elder are all events in which an individual undergoes a
change of status. During these transitional periods, individuals are considered to
be especially vulnerable to spiritual forces. Art objects are therefore created and
employed to assist in the rite of passage and to reinforce community values.
The birth of a child is an important event, not only for a family but for society
as well. Children ensure the continuity of a community, and therefore a woman’s
ability to bear children inspires awe. Ideals of motherhood and nurturance
are often expressed visually through figurative sculpture. Among the Senufo,
for example, female figures pay homage to the important roles women play as
founders of lineages and guardians of male initiates (image 7). The importance
of motherhood is symbolized by a gently swelling belly and lines of scarification
radiating from the navel, considered the source of life. In other societies, such as
the Bamana, figural sculptures are employed in ceremonies designed to assist
women having difficulty conceiving (image 4). They serve simultaneously as a
point of contact for spiritual intercession and as a visual reminder of physical and
Initiation, or the coming of age of a boy or girl, is a transition frequently
marked by ceremony and celebration. The education of youths in preparation for
the responsibilities of adulthood is often a long and arduous process. Initiation
rites usually begin at the onset of puberty. Boys, and to a lesser extent girls, are
separated from their families and taken to a secluded area on the outskirts of
the community where they undergo a sustained period of instruction and, more
typically in the past than now, circumcision. At the conclusion of this mentally
and physically rigorous period, they are reintroduced to society as fully initiated
adults and given the responsibilities and privileges that accompany their new
During initiation, artworks protect and impart moral lessons to the youths.
The spiritual forces associated with this period of transformation are often given
visual expression in the form of masked performances. During the initiation of
boys, male dancers wearing wooden masks may make several appearances (image
32). Their performances can serve diverse purposes—to educate boys about their
future social role, to bolster morale, to impress upon them respect for authority,
or simply to entertain and relieve stress. The initiation of girls rarely includes
the use of wooden masks, focusing more on transforming the body through the
application of pigment. The women’s Sande society, found among the Mende and
their neighbors, is one of the few organizations in which women wear wooden
masks as part of initiation ceremonies (image 11). Many initiation organizations
continue in today’s Africa, often adapting to contemporary lifestyles. For example,
in the past, the Sande society’s initiation process could take months to complete;
now, Sande sessions have adapted to the calendars of secondary schools and
initiation may be completed during vacation and holiday periods.
In many African societies, death is not considered an end but rather another
transition. The passing of a respected elder is a time of grief and lamentation but
also celebration. In this final rite of passage, the deceased joins the realm of the
honored ancestors. While the dead are buried soon after death, a formal funeral
often takes place at a later time. Funeral ceremonies with masked performances
serve to celebrate the life of an individual and to assist the soul of the deceased
in his or her passage from the human realm to that of the spirits (image 3). Such
ceremonies generally mark the end of a period of mourning and may be collective,
honoring the lives of the deceased over a number of years.
Figurative sculpture is also employed to commemorate important ancestors.
Representations of the deceased, individualized through details of hairstyle,
dress, and scarification, serve not only as memorials but also as a focal point for
rituals communicating with ancestors (images 15, 20). In some central African
societies, certain bones of the deceased are believed to contain great power and
are preserved in a reliquary. In such cases, figurative sculpture attached to the
reliquary does not represent the ancestor but honors and amplifies the power of
the sacred relics (image 27).
Art and the Individual
While many kinds of African art are employed in communal contexts, others serve
the needs of individuals. Domestic furnishings and objects of personal use, while
practical in purpose, also have an aesthetic dimension. The artistic enhancement
of objects of utilitarian function reflect and reinforce an individual’s standing and
status in society. Details of form and decoration personalize an object, marking
it as the property of a specific individual and, occasionally, providing information
about ethnic affiliation, social status, or rank. At the same time, the artistic
inventiveness and careful execution of such works clearly indicate a desire to
integrate aesthetics into daily life.
Personal adornment and dress are important forms of aesthetic expression.
Scarification and hairstyle, in particular, are regarded by Africans as means
by which the body is refined and civilized. Specifics of bodily ornamentation
are often depicted in fine detail on masks and figurative sculpture, indicating
their importance as symbols of cultural, personal, and/or professional identity
(images 5, 7, 10, 13). Dress is also a means of self-expression and definition.
Certain forms of textiles identify the wearer by age or status and may also
convey personal identity as well (images 33, 36). Textiles have also historically
been conceived as a form of wealth and their extensive use comments upon the
wearer’s access to riches.
Western Appreciation of African Art
The appreciation of African art in the Western world has had an enormous impact
not only on the development of modern art in Europe and the United States, but
also on the way African art is presented in a Western museum setting. Although
objects from Africa were brought to Europe as early as the fifteenth century, it
was during the colonial period that a greater awareness of African art developed.
The cultural and aesthetic milieu of late-nineteenth-century Europe fostered an
atmosphere in which African artifacts, once regarded as mere curios, became
admired for their artistic qualities.
African sculpture, in particular, served as a catalyst for the innovations of
modernist artists. Seeking alternatives to realistic representation, Western artists
admired African sculpture for its abstract conceptual approach to the human
form. For example, the powerfully carved Fang reliquary figure, with its bulbous
and fluid forms, attracted the attention of the painter André Derain and the
sculptor Jacob Epstein, both of whom once owned the sculpture (image 27).
Increasing interest among artists and their patrons gradually brought African
art to prominence in the Western art world. Along with this growing admiration
for African art, the aesthetic preferences of collectors and dealers resulted in
the development of distinctions between art and artifact. Masks and figurative
statuary in wood and metal—genres and media most readily assimilated into
established categories of fine art in the West—were preferred over more overtly
utilitarian objects, such as vessels or staffs. Masks and figurative statuary are
more commonly found in western and central Africa. The legacy of early Western
taste, with its emphasis on sculptural forms such as masks and figures, continues
to inform most museum collections of African art.
As African art became more widely appreciated in the West, scholars began
to study both its stylistic diversity and the meanings that African artifacts hold
for their makers. Our understanding of African art has been shaped by the work
of anthropologists and art historians, many of whom have spent considerable
time doing research in Africa on specific cultural traditions. African scholars are
also undertaking research into their own heritage. Their sustained commentaries
have led to new information and insights, providing a better understanding of
the complex cultural meanings embodied in art. At the same time, scholars today
recognize that interpreting the creation, form, and use of African art is an inexact
science, as meanings and functions shift over time and across regions.
Artists and Patronage
Artists in Africa
Traditional African artists are generally regarded as skilled professionals, though
they have varied training. Some are born into families of specialist artisans.
Among Mande cultures in western Africa, such as the Bamana of Mali, artisans
are a separate caste from the majority farmer group. Artisans such as blacksmiths,
carvers, potters, and leather workers inherit their professions and generally marry
within their groups (image 6). In the former kingdom of Dahomey (now Republic
of Benin), members of the Huntondji family served Fon kings as jewelers and
smiths for generations beginning in the eighteenth century (image 16).
Other artists learn through long-term apprenticeship and study under a master
artist. The Yoruba artist Olowe of Ise, who was active in what is now Nigeria from
the late nineteenth century until his death in 1938, became a master sculptor
after years of apprenticeship (image 18). Some artists are self-taught and learn
their craft informally. In some African societies, artists believe they are called to
their profession by a spiritual force. The master artist Zlan, active among Dan and
We communities during the first half of the twentieth century, considered carving
to be his destiny (image 12). His profession was originally ordained in a relative’s
dream before his birth and confirmed during his youth when an adze fell from a
palm oil tree his uncle was cutting.
European-style art schools, introduced in the colonial period, also offer
artistic training. Most traditional artists in Africa do not produce art as a fulltime
occupation, but must earn a living through other means, such as farming.
However, some royal kingdoms, such as Dahomey and Benin, supported guilds
where artists worked exclusively for the king and his court.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the materials artists work with and their techniques
are historically specialized according to gender. Wood carving and metallurgy, for
example, are often the exclusive domain of male artists, while pottery is typically
considered women’s art. In areas in which men and women practice the same
art, such as weaving, their work is usually differentiated by technique, material,
or style. For example, throughout western Africa, men weave long strips of cloth
using a horizontal loom, while women produce wider textiles using a vertical
loom. There are, of course, exceptions that suggest these gender divisions are
not rigid. Kuba men and women in Democratic Republic of Congo collaborate
in the creation of raffia textiles, which are woven by men and embroidered
by women (image 33). In some communities, like the Mangbetu (Democratic
Republic of Congo), men work as potters. The We master carver Zlan is said to
have been assisted in sculpting by his wife, Sonzlanwon (“snail, if God agrees”)
Artists have diverse social roles within their communities throughout Africa.
Some are highly regarded for their artistic skills. Others are respected for their
ability to work with certain materials. For example, blacksmiths are generally
regarded as exceptionally powerful individuals, whose ability to transform
ore into workable metal is seen akin to the creation of human life. In some
communities, an artist who creates powerful objects is considered dangerous or
socially aberrant. His exceptional abilities are thought to be outside the realm of
ordinary human behavior.
Although historically, most artifacts created by African artists were unsigned,
their authors were not anonymous. The artist’s name was often known and
remembered by the owner of the artifact and others within their community.
Among the Yoruba, for example, respected artists are celebrated and recalled
through the recitation of oriki, a genre of recited praise poetry (image 18).
Unfortunately, until the second half of the twentieth century, most collectors
failed to record such information and therefore museums lack the documentation
necessary to identify an artifact by its artist. Happily, there are instances in which
the artist’s name is known (images 12, 18, 19) or an individual’s stylistic traits
have been identified (image 34).
Absent such information about the artist, however, African objects are usually
identified by their ethnic or regional origin. Earlier studies of African art equated
ethnicity with style. Today, scholars recognize that, although certain formal
parameters of artistic expression may predominate in any given society, style
is not exclusively determined by culture. While artists often work within local
conventions of form and style, it is important to remember that they also work
creatively. An artist’s aesthetic choices, such as proportion, scale, details, and
decoration, individualize the artwork.
Furthermore, style is not a fixed entity. There may be multiple styles of art
within one cultural group. Some Fon artists, for example, produce luxury objects
sheathed in silver for royal patrons, while others in the same society create
artifacts encrusted with organic materials used in divination (images 16, 17).
Style may cross cultural borders—as patrons commission works from artists
in neighboring societies—or change over time. The concept of cultural style is
perhaps most problematic in the case of African artists who work in contemporary
urban or global contexts (images 39, 40).
African artists historically responded to the specific needs of a patron. Patrons
may be political leaders or groups, members of associations, families or lineages,
or individuals. Artists generally work for patrons from the same culture and
therefore share a common understanding about an object’s style and use. Artists
can also produce objects for neighboring or foreign patrons, which sometimes
leads to the introduction of new forms or styles. For instance, the tradition of
carving and performing wooden masks is a recent one among the southern
Bwa in Burkina Faso, adopted within the past hundred years from neighboring
peoples (image 8). The patronage of African artists at coastal carving centers by
Portuguese navigators during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries resulted in the
creation and export of finely carved ivory prestige items, like the saltcellar made
for the table of a European noble (image 9).
The patron who buys and uses the artwork plays an important role in the
object’s appearance and its social context. While an artist may follow local
conventions of style and form, specific features or stylistic innovations may be
incorporated during the process of creation at the patron’s request. The patron
may also contribute to the appearance of the object after it has been purchased
from the artist. For example, palm oil may be applied to the surface of a figural
sculpture during its ritual use (image 27). and masks may be repainted by their
owners from year to year.
Materials and Techniques
Many tradition-based works of African art are made of perishable materials and
are therefore subject to damage wrought by climate and insects in Africa. Most
artifacts in museums were collected in the early twentieth century and were
generally no older than a century at that time. For that reason, they have been
dated from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. Unlike Western
art, which places a high value on permanence, many forms of African art were
meant to meet the needs of only the original patron or even to serve a short-lived
function. Importance was placed on the creative process itself, whether it be art
making or ritual performance. The object itself could be renewed or replaced.
African sculpture is generally made of wood, an impermanent material subject
to termite or other environmental damage. Wooden sculptures from Africa in
Western collections generally date no earlier than the late nineteenth century,
though some older objects are known to exist. In arid climates like the western
Sudan, wood sculpture has been preserved for longer periods (image 4). In such
cases, the wood used for the sculpture may be dated by radiocarbon analysis,
a method of calculating the age of organic materials (such as wood, bone, and
shell) based on measuring the radioactive decay of carbon. This method is useful
only if the artifact is more than 200 years old.
The type of wood chosen by a sculptor is sometimes symbolically significant
and may require ritual preparation. Some Dogon sculptors, for example, must
offer a sacrifice to the spirit of a tree before using its wood.
Most African wood sculpture is made from a single piece of wood. Carving
in wood (as with stone or ivory) is a subtractive technique. The traditional tools
of an African sculptor are the ax or the adze. An adze is similar to an ax, except
that the blade is perpendicular rather than parallel to the handle. Using an ax or
adze, the sculptor blocks out a generalized form from a large block of wood. As he
refines the form through increasing definition, the sculptor may also use a knife
to cut fine details. Some sculptures are smoothed and shined, some painted with
locally made or imported pigments, and others encrusted with organic and other
In the Yoruba creative process, the various stages of the carving process are
clearly defined. After visualizing the desired form, the sculptor selects a piece of
freshly cut, green wood, which he keeps wet to facilitate carving. The first of four
stages, called ona lile, involves the preliminary blocking out of the wood with an
ax or adze. In the next step, aletunle, these main forms are refined into smaller
masses, such as ears, hands, and eyes, using an adze or chisel. Smoothing of the
carving, using a knife or chisel, is the third stage, called didan. Finally, the artist
Image 18 uses a knife to carve fine details, completing the sculpture, a stage known as fifin.
In Yoruba society, a potential carver begins an extended apprenticeship
with a master sculptor around age ten. The sculptor supervises the apprentice,
introducing him to tools and materials as well as principles of design and their
execution. In the beginning, the apprentice assists only with the most basic
tasks such as the smoothing of the wood surface. With experience, he is allowed
to block out the preliminary form. After several years of training, a talented
apprentice may continue as a paid assistant and then eventually establish his
Ivory from elephants holds both material and symbolic value. It is prized for
its physical properties such as strength, density, and smoothness. Considered
a luxury material, ivory was an important commercial commodity in trade
with Europe. Because the elephant denotes strength and power in many
African societies, ivory is also often used for arts associated with leadership. In
centralized kingdoms, such as Benin (Nigeria), the use of ivory was historically an
exclusive prerogative of royalty. The color of ivory is significant in some cultures,
since white is associated with ritual purity and spirituality in general (image 21).
Ivory was generally carved by the same artist who sculpted wood, using similar
techniques. Carvers used a knife or adze and polished the surface with a rough
textured leaf or other abrasive material. Fresh ivory, from the tusks of recently
killed elephants, was more oily and therefore easier to carve. In some societies,
ivory carvers constituted a separate category of artisans. At the court of Benin,
for example, the ivory carvers were organized into a guild known as Igbesamwan
and lived and worked in separate quarters. In Lega society, the ownership of ivory
artifacts historically has been restricted to members of the highest levels of the
Bwami association, the core political and social institution. Today, ivory carving
is still practiced in some areas of Africa, though to a much lesser extent given the
international ban on ivory trade.
While the large-scale stone sculptures of ancient Egypt are well known, in sub-
Saharan Africa stone has not been as widely used as wood as an artistic medium.
The massive architectural structures at Great Zimbabwe and the large stelae at
Aksum are among the few examples of the use of stone on a monumental scale.
Among those societies that used stone as a medium, such as the Kongo, the
material was often associated with inevitability and permanence (image 29).
Although many traditions of stone carving have not continued in the present
day, some forms of sculpture are products of more recent artistic developments.
One well-known artistic movement is that of contemporary Zimbabwean stone
sculpture, which was initiated in the late 1950s by Frank McEwen, director of
the National Museum of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Local Shona artists were
encouraged by McEwen, a British artist, to work in stone, a material associated
with the ancient ruins and sculpture of Great Zimbabwe, and many artists
continue to produce stone sculpture today.
Metalworking in sub-Saharan Africa may date to at least the seventh century
B.C. There is early evidence of iron smelting technology and the forging of iron
ore to create agricultural tools and weapons. Because metalworking was both an
intrinsically dangerous process and an important technological skill, blacksmiths
were (and are) highly regarded throughout much of Africa. In many African
origin stories, for example, the founding culture hero is either a blacksmith
or introduces the necessary skills to his people. Iron as a material is generally
thought to be inherently powerful, and is often associated with the gods (image
16). Most ironworking throughout sub-Saharan Africa involves highly ritualized
practices, as the process of transforming ore into metal is likened to the creation
of human life.
Luxury metals available locally include gold and copper alloys (bronze and
brass). Indeed, at one point in history, most of the gold supply in Europe came
from West Africa. Through trade with Europe beginning in the fifteenth century,
metals like copper alloy and silver became more plentiful. Because these metals
were considered precious materials, they were generally used for prestige objects
and signified wealth and power. Such metals were most often cast (images 20,
22, 28), but could also be worked in other ways, such as hammering into sheets.
In some cultures, encasing a wooden object in sheet metal or metal foil was one
way to maximize the visual effects of a costly material without using the vast
quantities of metal required for casting (images 14, 16).
The art of lost-wax casting, dating to at least the ninth century south of the
Sahara, is an important one in Africa. The technique is similar to that used in
Europe, but was developed independently. In fact, the virtuoso lifesize cast metal
sculptures of Ife were created beginning around the twelfth to thirteenth century,
a time when European artisans had not mastered casting on such a scale.
To briefly summarize the technique, the process begins by covering a core of
clay with a layer of wax. This wax layer is then modeled, carved, and incised by
the sculptor to create final surface details. Another layer of clay then encases the
wax form and is left to dry. After drying, the clay mold is heated to melt the wax.
Molten metal is poured in the clay mold. Once the metal has cooled, the clay
mold is broken open, resulting in a unique work.
Works made of fired clay, or terracotta, are among the earliest surviving artifacts
from the African continent. Sites in the Sahara Desert have yielded terracotta
objects that have been dated to the eighth millennium B.C. The corpus of
terracotta figures known as Nok constitutes the earliest known sculptural
tradition in sub-Saharan Africa. Works made of terracotta include vessels as well
as figurative objects (images 1, 15, 40). Many terracotta works—both figurative
and nonfigurative—are used in important rituals, particularly those relating to
funerary practices (image 15).
The technique of making ceramic vessels of clay is highly developed
throughout Africa and usually practiced by women. Vessels are almost always
built from hand without the aid of a potter’s wheel. Expert potters create perfectly
formed vessels by coiling or molding. After the vessel dries, it is fired outside in
open pits. Decoration is usually done before firing, either by working designs into
the clay or applying slip or vegetal solutions. The process of firing clay, like that
of working metal, is also highly ritualized, though to a lesser extent. Traditionally,
the process has been accompanied by certain taboos and restrictions intended
to ensure successful firing. Potters today continue to use traditional methods
of production, though some contemporary ceramic artists introduce new
technologies in their work (image 40).
Mud, which is clay in its most basic form, is also used in African architecture.
It serves as a building material, either applied over a preexisting framework or
used in the form of mud bricks. Mud is also used for the exterior decoration of
houses, where it may be molded into relief designs or used as paint. Perhaps
the most well-known example of mud brick architecture is the Great Mosque at
Jenne, originally built in the thirteenth century, in Mali. The mosque is believed
to be the largest adobe structure in the world and certainly is among the greatest
achievements of African architecture.
In Africa, cloth is made from locally available fibers, including cotton, wool, silk,
raffia palm leaves, and bark, as well as imports such as rayon (images 33, 38).
Pounded bark may have been the earliest form of cloth in Africa and continues
to be produced by some pygmy groups in central Africa. The other materials
are woven on looms. Weaving is done by both men and women throughout
Africa, although methods of production are generally differentiated by gender.
In western Africa, for example, men weave long, narrow strips of cloth on a
loom that is oriented horizontally. Women produce broader lengths of woven
cloth on a vertical loom. Woven textiles are decorated using diverse methods,
such as dyeing, painting, stamping, appliqué, embroidery, and printing. Other
forms of natural fibers, such as reeds and grasses, are used in basketry. Basketry
techniques are used to produce objects, such as containers, hats, and shields, as
well as in some forms of architecture.
The use of pigment for artistic expression in Africa may date to as early as
70,000 years ago. Paintings on rock are found throughout the African continent,
the earliest examples in the Saharan region possibly dating to 8000 B.C.
Other significant examples of rock painting are found in eastern and southern
Africa. With important exceptions, such as rock painting and also Ethiopian
manuscripts and painted church interiors (image 37), pigments are applied to
three-dimensional forms in Africa—sculptural works (images 8, 19), architectural
structures (image 18), and the human body. Historically, artists used naturally
derived pigments, such as ocher and indigo, although today commercially made
paints are also used. Often, certain colors or materials have symbolic value
(image 8). For example, white clay, called kaolin, is used widely throughout Africa,
applied on the human body or on artifacts, to signify spirituality (image 13). Paint
has become an increasingly popular medium from the twentieth century to today,
especially in the vernacular sign paintings found throughout western Africa and in
the work of academically trained contemporary artists.
Other Materials and Media
African artists use many other kinds of materials in the creation of artworks.
Beads are used throughout much of Africa, often in the making of prestige
objects. Many kinds of beads, particularly those made of seeds, shells, bone, or
coral, are locally available in Africa. Others, especially glass beads, are of Indian
or European manufacture and historically have been imported, often in great
quantities. Animal hide, a strong and durable material, is also used to create
objects, such as shields or items of dress. Different materials are often combined
for practical, symbolic, or aesthetic effect (image 3). Organic material, derived
from plants or animals, may be added or applied to an object for ritual purposes
(images 6, 17). The technique of covering a wood form with animal skin is unique
to a part of eastern Nigeria (image 24). Western techniques and materials, such as
photography and concrete, are also widely used in Africa today (image 39).
Introduction to the Visual Materials
The images of art in this section are grouped by geographic region and within
each region according to ethnic group. Images 38–40 depict modern and
contemporary works of art.
Dimensions of each artwork are noted to avoid misunderstandings about scale.
Keep in mind that many of these objects were used in certain practical contexts.
For example, remind the students that the masks and headdresses are intended to
be seen in motion and together with costume. (You may want to view the enclosed
video, which provides appropriate context for some of the headdresses.) Many of
the three-dimensional works of art were also adorned and carried in rituals.
Please familiarize yourself with the images and their descriptions. Initially you
might have the students view some of the images without providing information
to see what their reactions and questions will be. Ask the students to describe
what they see. When your class is ready to look at the images in more depth,
you may decide to lead the discussion or assign one or more works of art to
each student, who will study the descriptions and be the “expert” for those
images. The description of each work of art is followed by questions designed to
stimulate class discussion. (In addition, selected works are presented in pairs in
the Comparisons for Classroom Discussion section of this resource. By engaging
in these comparing and contrasting exercises, the students will discern the
distinctive features of the works of art.) As the discussion proceeds, students will
become more comfortable expressing ideas about how the formal elements of art
clarify its meaning and function.
1 Seated Figure, 13th century; ca. 1235
Mali, Inland Niger Delta region
Terracotta; H. 10 in. (25.4 cm)
Purchase, Buckeye Trust and Mr. and Mrs. Milton Rosenthal Gifts, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest
and Harris Brisbane Dick and Rogers Funds, 1981 (1981.218)
Among the earliest known examples of art from sub-Saharan Africa are terracotta
figures like this one from the inland delta of the Niger River, near the present-day
home of the Dogon and Bamana peoples. In this region of Mali, the ancient city
of Jenne-jeno (“Old Jenne”) flourished as a center for agriculture, trade, and art
from the middle of the first millennium until about 1600. The terracotta figures
associated with this civilization represent men and women, singular and in pairs,
in a variety of attire and poses, including sitting, kneeling, and on horseback. The
diversity of imagery and the skill with which they were modeled reveal the rich
sculptural heritage of a sophisticated urban culture.
This figure sits, hunched over, with both arms clasping an upraised leg, its
head tilted sideways to rest against its bent knee. The posture evokes a pensive
attitude that is reinforced by the expressiveness of the facial features: the
bulging eyes, large ears, and protruding mouth are all stylistically characteristic
of works from this region. The fluid contours of the body emphasize the long
sweeping curve of the neck and back and the rhythmic play of intertwined limbs.
Except for the barest suggestion of shoulder blades, fingers, and toes, the figure
lacks anatomical details. On the back are three rows of raised marks and two
rows of marks punched into the clay. These have been variously interpreted as
scarification marks or symptoms of a disease.
Thermoluminescence tests indicate that this figure was fired during the
first half of the thirteenth century. Other terracotta figures recovered (and, in
many cases, looted) from various sites throughout the Inland Niger Delta have
been dated from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century. Artists—either men
or women—modeled the figures by hand, using clay mixed with grog (crushed
potsherds). Details of dress, jewelry, and body ornament were either added on
or incised. Once complete, the work was polished, covered with a reddish-toned
clay slip, and then fired, probably in an open-pit kiln. The surviving figures vary in
style and subject matter, suggesting that the sculptors had considerable artistic
Our understanding of the use and meaning of such works remains speculative.
A few controlled archaeological digs have revealed similar figures that were
originally set into the walls of houses. Oral history collected recently in the
region supports the archaeological evidence, as the figures are said to have been
venerated in special sanctuaries and private homes. There is little consensus,
however, on the meaning of the various forms of the terracotta figures. Scholars
have suggested that this figure conveys an attitude of mourning. Its seated pose,
shaved head, and lack of dress recall mourning customs still practiced by some in
this region of western Africa.
2 Ritual Container (Adun koro), 16th–19th century
Wood; L. 93 in. (236.22 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
The Dogon call this monumental receptacle, carved from a single block of wood,
the adun koro, or “ark of the world.” The flat-bottomed, rectangular box with a
hollowed-out interior is used during annual harvest rituals to hold offerings to
the spiritual world. This type of vessel has been interpreted by art historians as a
representation of the mythic ark central to Dogon accounts of genesis.
According to some accounts, the Creator Amma sent the mythic ark down from
heaven to populate the world. Inside the vessel were the eight original ancestors
equipped with everything essential to life on earth. The ark was guided from
heaven by Nommo, a primordial being who was transformed into a horse upon
the ark’s landing. The horse’s head and tail, sculpted on the ends of this vessel,
suggest Nommo’s role as leader and subsequent earthly transformation. The eight
original ancestors may be depicted here as a series of stylized squatting figures,
carved in relief on the side of the container. They are represented in two groups of
four, separated by a schematic animal, possibly a lizard.
The Dogon live in remote villages, sheltered by the steep cliffs that stretch
125 miles parallel to the Niger River. The environment is particularly harsh, and
Dogon farmers struggle to provide food for their families in this dry terrain. A
successful harvest is therefore a time of celebration and the giving of thanks.
Each year during winter solstice, after the millet is reaped, lineages (extended
families) participate in a ritual known as goru. The word goru is defined as
humidity, richness, and abundance, all of which are seen by the Dogon as
blessings from the spiritual world. In order to show gratitude to the ancestors and
to Amma the Creator, the head of a lineage offers pieces of goat and sheep meat
as sacrifices to the family altar. These offerings are dramatically presented in the
adun koro, the monumental container that evokes the mythic “ark of the world.”
Mask and Hood (Kanaga), 19th–20th century
Wood, fiber (sanseveria), hide, pigment; L. 22 13/16 in. (57.9 cm)
Gift of Lester Wunderman, 1987 (1987.74h,i)
Dogon masks, such as this one called kanaga, are worn primarily at dama, a
collective funerary rite for Dogon men. The ritual’s goal is to ensure the safe
passage of the spirits of the deceased to the world of the ancestors. The
ceremony is organized by members of Awa, a male initiation society with ritual
and political roles within Dogon society. As part of the public rites related to
death and remembrance, Awa society members are responsible for the creation
and performance of the masks.
Like other Dogon wooden masks, kanaga masks depict the face as a rectangular
box with deeply hollowed channels for the eyes. The superstructure above the
face identifies this mask as a kanaga: a double-barred cross with short vertical
elements projecting from the ends of the horizontal bars. This abstract form has
been interpreted on two levels: literally, as a representation of a bird, and, on a
more esoteric level, as a symbol of the creative force of god and the arrangement
of the universe. In the latter interpretation, the upper crossbar represents the sky
and the lower one, the earth.
This kanaga mask was collected complete with some of its costume elements.
Attached to the wooden face mask is a hood composed of plaited fiber strips
dyed black and yellow with a short fiber fringe that covers the dancer’s head. A
ruff of red and yellow fibers frames the face. The dancer also wore a black vest
woven of fiber and embroidered with white cowry shells and fiber armbands at
the wrists and elbows. This ensemble included a long skirt of loosely strung, curly
black fibers and a short overskirt composed of straight red and yellow fibers, worn
More than eighty different types of masks, of both wood and fiber, have been
documented in dama performances. They represent various human characters
familiar to the Dogon community, such as hunters, warriors, healers, women,
and people from neighboring ethnic groups. The masks may also depict animals,
birds, objects, and abstract concepts.
Because preparations are elaborate and costly, the dama may be held several
years after the death and burial of an individual. Performances take place over
a six-day period, culminating with a procession of masked dancers who escort
the souls of the dead from the village, where they might cause harm, to their
final resting place in the spiritual realm. The ceremony recalls the origins of the
Dogon people, while also marking the end of the mourning period for the recently
deceased. Today, such masks continue to be worn at dama performances but are
also danced on other, more secular occasions, such as national holidays and as
demonstrations organized for the benefit of tourists.
Mother and Child (Gwandusu), 15th–20th century
Wood; H. 48 5/8 in. (123.5 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
Seated Male with Lance (Gwantigi), 15th–20th century
Wood; H. 35 3/8 in. (89.9 cm)
Gift of the Kronos Collection in honor of Martin Lerner, 1983 (1983.600a,b)
The large, naturalistic figures of a woman and man shown here are associated
with Jo, a society of initiated Bamana men and women found primarily in southern
Mali, near the towns of Bougouni and Dioila. They are also used in Gwan, a
division of Jo concerned with women’s fertility and childbirth. Now displayed
together in the Museum’s collection, each of these figures originally came from a
different community where they were paired with mates of their own size.
Each of these works embodies complementary Bamana ideals of physical
beauty and moral character. The seated mother with child is referred to as
Gwandusu, a name evoking strength, passion, and conviction. It combines
Gwan, the name of the organization itself that also means hot, hard, or difficult,
and dusu, which translates as soul, heart, passion, courage, and anger. She
is represented as both a nurturing mother and a female with extraordinary
powers. Her heavy breasts hold the promise of milk for the child that clings
to her abdomen. On her head is a hat decorated with amulets in the form of
small animal horns filled with ritual ingredients, and strapped to her left arm is
a dagger. Both the knife and hat are commonly associated with powerful male
hunters: their representation here underscores the exceptional nature of this
The male figure is called Gwantigi, or “Master of Gwan.” He is identified as
a hunter and wears an amulet-laden headdress and a dagger on his arm. He is
represented seated on a chair, an indication of his status as a leader. The lance he
holds in his raised right hand confirms his power and authority.
Jo and Gwan sculptures demonstrate a range of gestures and attributes that
suggest a possible link to the terracotta statuary of the Inland Niger Delta region.
These two sculptures are probably not the work of the same artist, although they
are quite similar stylistically. Note their long, massive torsos with wide, arching
shoulders, exaggerations of the human figure that emphasize their power. Their
faces are thin and tapered, with large, heavy-lidded eyes, a slender nose, and
sharply projecting lips. Represented as archetypes of humanity, they embody
Bamana ideals of male and female social roles that, while distinct, are considered
equally important in Bamana society.
Jo and Gwan sculptures are cared for by senior members of the associations
and displayed as part of a sculptural ensemble during annual festivals. Prior to
their public presentation, the sculptures are cleaned, oiled, and adorned with
clothing. Annual displays organized by Jo typically involve only a pair of male
and female figures. Those of the Gwan association are more elaborate, and may
include up to seven figures in their grouping. Impressive in size and infrequently
displayed, the sculptures evoke wonder during their annual presentations and are
described by some Bamana as “extraordinary and marvelous things.”
The wood from which these sculptures are carved has been dated as early
as the fifteenth century by radiocarbon analysis, which measures the amount
of radioactive decay of carbon found in organic material. Wood is a perishable
medium subject to damage in a warm, moist climate or by the ravages of insects.
The unusually well preserved condition of the figures is largely due to the arid
conditions of the region in which they were found.
Male and Female Antelope Headdresses (Ci wara kun), 19th–20th century
Mali, Segou region; Bamana
Wood, metal bands; 1978.412.435: H. 35 3/4 in. (90.8 cm); 1978.412.436: H. 28 in. (71.1 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1964
Pairs of carved wooden headdresses in the form of antelopes, like these
examples, refer to the mythic culture hero Ci Wara, a divine force conceived
of as half man and half antelope. Bamana oral traditions credit Ci Wara with
introducing to humanity agricultural methods and an understanding of earth,
animals, and plants. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Ci Wara was
invoked and honored by members of a men’s agricultural association, also called ci
wara, in village-wide performances that celebrated the skills of successful farmers.
These performances featured a pair of dancers wearing sculpted headdresses,
one representing a male antelope and the other a female. They held sticks in their
hands to paw the earth just as the mythic Ci Wara did when he first taught men to
plant seeds. (See video of ci wara performances on the enclosed DVD.)
In performance, the paired dancers symbolize the union between men and
women, essential for the continuity of the community. The formal features of the
headdress also reference elements of nature necessary to sustain life. The male
serves as a metaphor for the sun, while the female is associated with the earth.
The long strands of raffia fibers attached to the headdress, concealing the dancer,
are likened to streams of water.
Although ci wara headdresses are generally described as representing
antelopes, they incorporate features of other animals, including aardvarks and
pangolins. These animals are selected for their symbolic value. In this pair, the
horns and long, arched neck represent the antelope, associated with grace and
strength. The head with a long, pointed nose and the low-slung body are features
of the aardvark, admired for its determination in digging. The sculpted headdress
is attached to a basketry skullcap (now missing on these examples) and secured
on top of the dancer’s head with a cotton strip. The dancer’s face would be
covered by a semitransparent cloth, and a costume of darkened raffia fiber would
cloak the dancer’s body.
The silhouette-like nature of sculptural representation is noted for its elegant
play of positive and negative space. The male, identified as a roan antelope,
is distinguished by its long horns and elaborate openwork mane. The female,
representing an oryx antelope, carries a fawn on her back, a reference to human
mothers, who carry babies on their backs as they till the fields. The face and horns
of both are decorated with delicate chip-carved patterning, incised linear designs,
and metal appliqué and strips.
The Bamana, who live in the southern part of present-day Mali, have long
considered farming to be among the most noble of all professions. Traditionally,
Bamana farmers have worked arduously in the savanna fields from May to
October, when it rains regularly, in order to provide enough food during the long,
dry season. Today, despite the significant social changes that have impacted
contemporary Bamana experience, farming remains central to their identity.
Although many Bamana have adopted Islam over the course of the last century,
theatrical ci wara dances continue in many Bamana villages, celebrating their
agrarian lifestyle. Among the continent’s most well-known forms of expression,
the elegantly abstract form of the ci wara headdress has also been adopted as a
national symbol of cultural identity, used as a logo by Mali’s official airline and
found on the national currency.
Komo Headdress (Komokunw), 19th–20th century
Wood, bird skull, horns, cloth, porcupine quill, sacrificial material; L. 33 3/4 in. (85.6 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
This headdress was made and used by a member of the Komo society, an
association of blacksmiths found among the Bamana and other Mande-speaking
communities in the region. Komo association members enforce community
laws, make judicial decisions, and offer protection from illness, misfortune, and
malevolent forces. The headdress embodies the secret knowledge and awesome
power of the society; its rough and unattractive form is therefore intended to be
visually intimidating. While works like the Bamana maternity figure (image 4)
depict a human ideal, this headdress is explicitly about harnessing the forces of
untamed nature, a concept expressed visually in its form and material.
The wooden structure of the headdress has a domed head, gaping mouth,
and long horns. Attached are antelope horns, a bird skull with a sharp beak, and
porcupine quills, elements chosen for their metaphorical associations since
they provide animals with power and protection. The animals themselves hold
symbolic value in Bamana culture. Birds, for example, are associated with wisdom
and divinatory powers, while porcupines signify the importance of preserving
knowledge. The mask was further enhanced by the application of ritual substances
formed from a mixture of earth, sacrificial animal blood, and medicinal plants.
This material was replenished on a regular basis, endowing the mask with the
critical life force, or nyama, that is the source of its extraordinary power.
Komo society headdresses are made by blacksmiths, a specialized artisan
group among the Bamana whose profession is inherited. Blacksmiths are greatly
respected within their community for the special knowledge and technical skills
that allow them to use fire, water, and air to transform iron ore into tools and
weapons. Ironworking is considered an especially dangerous profession, one that
requires courage and extraordinary abilities to manage the potentially destructive
spiritual forces released during the process. Blacksmiths are therefore uniquely
qualified to create Komo headdresses, which combine terrifying forms and
inherently harmful materials in an object of benefit to the community.
The headdress is worn in dramatic performances that serve as a focal point of
Komo society meetings. Held in private and restricted to initiated members, these
meetings provide an opportunity to gain an understanding of the society’s history,
beliefs, and rituals. Accompanied by bards and musicians, a high-ranking Komo
member appears wearing a headdress like this strapped on the top of his head.
His face is covered with a semitransparent cloth and he wears a costume of black
feathers enhanced with amulets over a hooped skirt. The dancer’s performance
is acrobatic and intense, featuring spectacular feats that suggest extraordinary
powers. His performance responds to petitions for assistance from members of
the community. Through song and dance, the Komo member gradually reveals
solutions to a variety of concerns that have been presented to him, from crop
failure to infertility.
Considered the most powerful of men’s associations in the region, Komo has
an ancient history and was well established by the time the Mali empire rose to
power in the thirteenth century. Individual community branches of Komo, which
are distributed widely across the region, gain authority through strong leadership,
coalitions with wilderness spirits, and effective use of power objects.
Ancestral Couple (Pombibele), 19th–20th century
Côte d’Ivoire, Korhogo region; Senufo
Wood, pigment; H. male, 23 1/2 in. (59.7 cm); H. female, 23 7/10 in. (60.2 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
The Senufo are a diverse people who have varied cultural backgrounds and
speak different dialects. Nonetheless, they share a central social institution—
Poro—to which all men belong. Within a Senufo community, each occupational
group—farmers, traders, artisans—has its own Poro chapter. Poro supervises
the initiation of adolescent boys and provides continuing social and political
guidance to its members. Members of its female counterpart, the Sandogo
association, are diviners whose responsibilities include the maintenance of good
relations with the spiritual world. Together, the men’s and women’s societies work
to ensure the physical and spiritual well-being of the community.
This male and female pair, representing an ideal Senufo man and woman,
commemorate the original ancestors of the Senufo account of creation. Poro’s
leadership commissions such figural pairs for display to reinforce social teachings
during initiation ceremonies. The figures are also displayed at funerals of
important Poro elders, a time of community grief and loss. Embodying Senufo
beliefs concerning order and continuity, the figures remind the living of the
importance of preserving connections with past generations.
Similar in form, the figures stand erect, legs slightly flexed and facing forward,
with large ears cocked forward and jutting chin. Their elongated columnar torsos
are framed by broad curving shoulders from which attenuated arms extend
fluidly, swelling into blocky hands. Both the frontal poses and the exaggerations
of human anatomy visualize ideas about power, determination, and vitality. The
extended navels refer to an awareness of the wisdom of the ancestors and, in
the case of the female figure, also stress the role of women in the continuity of
human life. The figures’ eyes are nearly closed, as if in meditation, a reference to
the inner strength they possess.
The male figure carries a scythe, a symbol that he is the farmer and provider.
The woman’s exaggerated conical breasts and swelling belly indicate that she
bears and nurtures children. The man’s extraordinary headdress, the woman’s
equally impressive coiffure, their facial scarification and body adornments signify
their high status. Together, they reflect the complementary social roles of men
and women in Senufo culture.
Mask (Nwantantay), 19th–20th century
Burkina Faso; Bwa
Wood, pigment, fiber; H. 72 in. (182.9 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1964
Among the southern Bwa peoples in Burkina Faso, large wooden plank masks
are carved to represent various flying spirits that inhabit the natural world. These
spirits, though largely invisible, are associated with water and can take physical
form as insects that gather around a pool after a heavy rain or as a large water
fowl, like an ibis. Some Bwa describe a mythological encounter in which a flying
spirit appeared before a human, offering protection and service. A tall plank mask
was created after this encounter to honor the spirit and ensure its continued
This mask has a circular face and tall, vertical superstructure with a series
of downward-curving hooks projecting from both the front and the back. The
protruding, diamond-shaped mouth with jagged teeth is pierced to allow the
wearer to see. Brightly painted patterns in red, black, and white enhance the
bold geometric shape of the plank. These designs refer to important Bwa ideals
of social and moral behavior that are taught over the course of initiation. Each
symbol has multiple levels of meaning that older initiates reveal gradually to
novices as they mature. The checkerboard pattern of black and white squares,
for example, refers on one level to the animal skins on which people sit: white
representing the clean, fresh hides assigned to youths and black suggesting the
darkened skins owned by elders. On a less literal level, the juxtaposition of white
and black squares suggests abstract concepts such as the separation of good from
evil, and of light from dark.
Nwantantay masks are part of diverse ensembles of masks that represent
animals, insects, humans, and supernatural creatures. The masks are
commissioned and owned by large, extended families, or clans. The masks are
used on several occasions throughout the year, including initiations, burials,
annual renewal rites associated with planting and harvesting, and ceremonies
celebrating the consecration of a new mask. These events are often competitive,
with individual clans striving to present the most elaborate and inventive
performance in the community.
The mask is worn by a skilled dancer who secures it over his face by gripping
a fiber rope on the mask’s back with his teeth. His body is concealed by a bushy
fiber costume, traditionally dyed red or black, but now also seen in the bright
green, yellow, and purple of European dyes. Accompanied by musicians playing
flutes and drums and women singing songs, the masquerader moves rapidly,
imitating the behavior of a flying spirit. With fiber costume twirling, he twists
back and forth, then dips low to the ground, rotating the mask to suggest a
The tradition of carving and performing wooden masks is a recent one among
the southern Bwa, adopted within the past hundred years from the neighboring
Nunuma and Winiama peoples. Previously, the Bwa had created masks of leaves,
vines, and grasses for use in ceremonies honoring Do, the earthly representative
of the creator god. Resulting from the constant interplay of people and ideas, this
example of cultural borrowing demonstrates the dynamism of masking traditions
in the region and, in particular, the openness to innovation and adaptation that
characterizes Bwa culture.
Lidded Saltcellar, 15th–16th century
Sierra Leone; Sapi-Portuguese
Ivory; H. 11 3/4 in. (29.8 cm)
Gift of Paul and Ruth W. Tishman, 1991 (1991.435a,b)
This magnificent lidded ivory saltcellar was carved by a Sapi sculptor working in
what is now Sierra Leone. This work is part of a group of ivory artifacts created
during the earliest period of exchange between Africans living south of the
Sahara and Europeans. During the second half of the fifteenth century, journeys
of exploration brought Portuguese navigators into direct contact with cultures of
coastal western Africa. At a number of coastal centers in present-day Sierra Leone
and Guinea Bissau, as well as Nigeria and Democratic Republic of Congo, the
travelers encountered African carvers of considerable talent and professional skill.
They commissioned African works in ivory for export as souvenirs of their travels
or as gifts for the European nobility who financed their voyages. Many of the
artifacts entered European princely collections, formed as cabinets of curiosities.
These works, whose African origins had been forgotten until recent art historical
research unearthed them, have come to be known as Afro-Portuguese ivories.
At the time, salt was rare and therefore very expensive in Europe. To be able to
display this precious commodity in such a finely carved and elaborately detailed
vessel was a symbol of wealth and prestige at the table of a wealthy Portuguese.
Local artists are believed to have been shown European prototypes on which to
base their creations. This vessel’s form and some elements of its decoration recall
European saltcellars. For example, an acorn nestled inside the stylized petals of a
rose crowns the top of the container, while four rosettes carved in relief surround
the upper part of the lid. Most of the designs, however, are distinctly African,
reflecting Sapi artistic sensibilities. Four figures wearing local dress are sculpted
around the base. Two are warriors bearing swords and shields, and two are
women. Above them, curving around the disk of ivory, are four delicately carved
snakes that drop down toward four dogs represented in a state of alarm with
bared fangs, drawn-back ears, and bristling fur.
Although the Sapi peoples have dispersed to other locales since the sixteenth
century, traditions associated with contemporary peoples related to the Sapi,
notably the Baga, provide insights into the meaning of such imagery. In Baga
belief, snakes are identified with local water spirits, called Niniganné. The
Niniganné are described as powerful beings with long, smooth hair and brilliant
scales. They are believed to be capable of spanning two realms—the earthly and
the spiritual—and are associated with waterways, wealth (in the form of clothing
and metal), and danger. These attributes coincide with Sapi perceptions of the
Portuguese seafarers, whose flowing hair and unusual attire may be compared
to descriptions of Niniganné. Like the water spirits, the Portuguese visitors were
regarded as powerful individuals with mystical abilities who traveled across the
water bringing great riches, in the form of trade. They also brought danger, since,
beginning as early as 1512, the Portuguese king required that ships returning from
Africa be laden with slaves.
Headdress (D’mba or Yamban), 19th–20th century
Wood; H. 46 1/2 in. (118.1 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.17)
This massive headdress is an example of a regional artistic tradition that dates
to at least 1886 and possibly to the early seventeenth century. Among Baga
subgroups the headdress is referred to variously as D’mba or Yamban, an
abstract concept personifying local ideals of female power, goodness, and social
Carved from a single piece of wood, this work takes the form of a large head
and slender neck supported by a yoke with four projecting legs. Flat, pendulous
breasts signify that the subject is a mature woman who has nursed many children.
She is distinguished from ordinary Baga by her intricately braided coiffure with
high central crest, a hairstyle associated with Fulbe women, who are renowned
for their physical beauty. This coiffure is also a reminder of cultural origins, as
the Fulbe live in the Futa Jallon mountains, the ancestral homeland of the Baga
people. Incised linear patterns representing scarification marks decorate her
face, neck, and breasts. Such monumental structures, carried on the shoulders of
the performer, often weigh more than eighty pounds. In its original context, the
headdress would have had a thick raffia skirt attached to the bottom of the yoke.
A shawl of dark cotton cloth, imported from Europe, would be tied around the
shoulders, hiding the legs of the yoke.
The ideals of womanhood expressed symbolically by the strong forms
of the headdress are reinforced by the movement of the male dancer, who
communicates a model of virtuous behavior for Baga women (fig.1). Performances
documented in the 1990s describe the dramatic entrance of the masquerader in a
central plaza, preceded by a processional line of drummers. Despite its unwieldy
size, the headdress is manipulated skillfully by the dancer, whose movements are
alternately composed and vigorous. As the dancer twirls to the accompaniment
of drums, the assembled audience of male and female onlookers participates
actively. Some reach to touch the breasts of the headdress, affirming its blessings
of fertility, while others throw rice, symbolizing agricultural bounty. Songs
prescribing proper social behavior are led by women who are joined in the chorus
by men. Beginning at sunrise, the celebration continues through sundown and
sometimes over the course of many days.
Historically, such masks were used in dances held at planting times and
harvest celebrations, as well as at marriages, funerals, and ceremonies in honor
of special guests. Following Guinea’s independence from France in 1958 and
its adoption of a Marxist government, the tradition was suppressed by Muslim
leaders and state officials. In the 1990s, the lifting of decades of censorship was
followed by a popular revival of earlier art forms. In Baga society, D’mba (or
Yamban) now appears publicly on occasions marking personal and communal
growth, including marriages, births, and harvest festivals, as well as celebratory
occasions such as soccer tournaments.
Mende Helmet Mask, 19th–20th century
Sierra Leone, Moyamba district; Mende or Sherbro
Wood, metal; H. 18 7/8 in. (47.9 cm)
Gift of Robert and Nancy Nooter, 1982 (1982.389)
This helmet mask reveals the hand of a master through its refined carving,
harmonious design, and innovative elements. Within Mende and Sherbro culture,
helmet masks are carved with symbolic features intended to endow the wearer
with spiritual power. Senior members of two distinct initiation societies, Sande
and Humui, may have worn this work in performances.
Sande is a powerful pan-ethnic women’s association responsible for the
education and moral development of young girls. Helmet masks of this kind
represent its guardian spirit and allude to an idealized female beauty. Historically,
the Sande initiation process took months to complete, yet today sessions are
coordinated with the calendars of secondary schools and may be completed
during vacations and holidays. Such masks are worn by initiated Sande women
at performances that celebrate the completion of the young initiates’ training
period. The masks are finely carved to convey admired feminine features:
an elaborate coiffure, a smooth, broad forehead, narrowly slit eyes, a small,
composed mouth, and a sensuously ringed neck. This composition of forms
and symmetry creates a serene facial expression that implies self-control. The
presence of a beard, a symbol synonymous with the wisdom men achieve with
age and experience, may suggest that, through Sande, women attain knowledge
equal to men. Directly below the curve of the beard are two slots through which
the performer can see.
The mask’s glossy black patina evokes the beauty of clean, healthy, oiled skin.
It may also refer to the blackness of the river bottom, where the Sande spirit is
believed to reside. In this interpretation, the ringed neck may refer to the
circular ripples of water that are formed as the Sande spirit emerges from her
In Humui, a medicine society for men and women, this type of helmet mask
has been used to address curative needs, especially mental illness. The four
projecting animal-horn amulets that rise from the perimeter may be a reference
to the animal horns filled with protective medicinal ingredients worn by Humui
Ceremonial Ladle (Wunkirmian or Wake mia), before 1960
Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire; We/Dan
Wood, fiber, metal, pigment; L. 23 in. (58.4 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
Among the We and neighboring Dan peoples, large, sculpted ladles like this
one are created to honor women known as wunkirle, a title earned through their
exceptional generosity and hospitality. This title is bestowed upon one woman
from each village quarter who has demonstrated outstanding abilities as an
industrious farmer, a bountiful provider of food, and a gracious host. The chosen
woman is expected to offer hospitality to all who come to her door at the great
celebrations that occur before the planting season begins. As wunkirle, she leads
a procession of women carrying pots of cooked rice and soup and directs the
distribution of the food to all the guests in attendance. Her duties also include
hosting itinerant bands of musicians and entertainers as well as later providing
food for men who toil in the fields during the planting season.
Such ladles are carved as an emblem of honor for a particular wunkirle and are
typically passed on to the successor she selects to replace her. According to We
belief, these ceremonial ladles embody a spiritual force, called dü, which sustains
the wunkirle’s exceptional abilities to organize feasts, bringing her great fame and
social status. Women who have been honored as wunkirle often accompany male
dancers wearing masks in performances. Bearing their ladles in hand, the women
dance with the masker, offering gifts and blessings.
This ladle takes the form of a long, scooplike bowl surmounted by a handle
in the shape of a female head. It is attributed to the artist Zlan, a master carver
active during the first half of the twentieth century. The face, sculpted in a style
characteristic of Zlan’s work, features slit eyes, a generous mouth with four metaltab
teeth, and a line of delicately incised scarification from forehead to nose.
White kaolin clay around the eyes and extending to the sides represents the band
of white kaolin clay that Dan women often apply cosmetically to symbolize the
heightened powers of sight one must possess to be aware of the spiritual realm.
A carved coiffure of two large crescents extending front to back is embellished
with plaited fiber along the central ridges. On such ladles, the sculpted head is
believed to be a portrait of the original owner of the ladle, whose individuality
is conveyed through details of specific scarification and coiffure design features,
rather than physical likeness.
Zlan’s work was much sought after by wealthy patrons in Dan, Mano, and We
villages in Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire. The son of a carver, Zlan was born around
the turn of the twentieth century in a We town on the River Cess, which forms a
border between Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia. Zlan’s early demonstration of artistic
talent was recognized and encouraged by his mother, who gave him his first adze.
He secured his first commission for a sculpture around the age of thirteen and
eventually gained widespread recognition for his masterful carvings, many of
which now grace museum collections in the United States and Europe. Until his
death sometime before 1960, Zlan served as a mentor to many students during
their apprenticeship, establishing his village of Belewale as a major center of
carving. According to the recollections of locals, Zlan was often assisted in carving
by his wife Sonzlanwon, who blocked out forms in the wood for Zlan to finish. The
tradition of carving has continued in Zlan’s family, at least through the late 1980s,
carried on by his nephews Wrudugweh and Blekwa as well as a niece, Ziate.
Pair of Figures, 19th–20th century
Côte d’Ivoire; Baule
Wood, pigment, beads, iron; H. male, 21 3/16 in. (55.4 cm); H. female, 20 2/3 in. (52.5 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1969
Carved by the same hand, these figures reflect and embody Baule ideals of
civilized beauty. In Baule society, diviners commission such figures from artists
to attract the attention of asye usu, or nature spirits. Asye usu are considered to be
grotesque and volatile beings associated with the untamed elements of nature.
The spirits are seduced from the wilderness by the figures’ dazzling beauty and
lured into inhabiting the sculptures, which embody the civilized values the asye
usu lack and therefore find so desirable. The asye usu are then induced into sharing
spiritual insights, conveyed through the medium of the diviner.
Such figures are prominently displayed during ritual sessions with clients who
seek clarification about their difficulties, which can range from poor harvests
to physical illness. The presence of the sculptures and the sacrificial material
applied to their feet (never to the smooth surfaces of their bodies), along with
repeated striking of a gong, help to induce the trance state that allows the
diviner to communicate with the asye usu. The diviner can then gain insights and
revelations regarding the source of the client’s problems. The ownership of such
extraordinary works also serves to further the professional standing of the diviner,
who must impress potential clients with the caliber and sophistication of the
instruments used in his or her practice (fig. 2).
Although depicted separately, the male and female figures are perfectly
harmonized through their matched forms, gestures, stances, and expressions.
Their elaborate coiffures, intricate scarification, and beaded accoutrements
signify cultural refinement and status. Their erect, balanced pose and partially
closed eyes imply respect, self-control, and serenity. The fully rounded muscles of
their flexed legs suggest physical strength, youthful energy, and the potential for
action. White kaolin accentuates the elegant arches of their eyebrows, reflecting
the practice of diviners, who apply the fine clay around their eyes to facilitate
communication with the spirits.
Linguist Staff (Okyeamepoma), 19th–20th century
Ghana; Akan, Asante
Gold foil, wood, nails; H. 61 5/8 in. (156.5 cm)
Gift of the Richard J. Faletti Family, 1986 (1986.475a-c)
This magnificent gold-covered staff was created to serve as an insignia of office
for an okyeame, a high-ranking advisor to an Asante ruler. The position of okyeame
encompasses a broad set of responsibilities, including mediation, judicial
advocacy, political troubleshooting, and the preservation and interpretation of
royal history. The okyeame’s most visible public role is as principal intermediary
between the ruler and those who seek his counsel, leading to the popular
characterization of his profession as being that of a linguist (fig. 3). Drawing upon
vast knowledge and considerable oratorical and diplomatic skills, the okyeame
eloquently engages in verbal discourse on behalf of the chief and his visitors. He
relays the words of visitors to the king and transmits the king’s response, often
with poetic or metaphorical embellishment.
Imagery on the finial of linguist staffs typically illustrates Asante proverbs
about power and institutional responsibilities. Here, a spider on its web is flanked
by two figures, representing the proverb: “No one goes to the house of the spider
to teach it wisdom.” The spider is a fitting symbol for respect due to a person with
great oratorical and diplomatic skills. In Ghana, Ananse the spider is the bringer
of the wisdom of Nyame, the supreme creator god of the Asante, and is the
originator of folk tales and proverbs. The staff is composed of a long wooden shaft
carved in two interlocking sections and a separate finial attached to the base. It is
covered entirely with gold foil, a material that alludes to the sun, and to the vital
force or soul contained within all living things.
Although the institutional office of okyeame is believed to be centuries old,
the use of figural wooden linguist staffs as insignia is probably a more recent
development. Prior to the late nineteenth century, linguist staffs took the form
of a simple cane, a tradition likely borrowed from European prototypes in the
mid-seventeenth century. During the late nineteenth to early twentieth century,
the British gave official staffs, often made with figural finials, to Akan chiefs who
represented the colonial authorities. Since 1900, hundreds of figural linguist
staffs have been carved not only for linguists but also for representatives of other
institutions, such as associations of fishermen, carpenters, and musicians.
The Asante kingdom, part of the larger Akan culture, was formed around 1700
under the leadership of Osei Tutu. Osei Tutu brought together a confederation
of states that had grown wealthy and powerful as a result of the area’s lucrative
trade in gold, sold to both northern merchants across the Sahara and European
navigators. The centralized system of government that emerged was a complex
network of chiefs and court officials under a single paramount leader. A variety of
gold regalia was used to distinguish rank and position within the court.
Memorial Head, 19th–20th century
Terracotta; H. 12 5/16 in. (31.3 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1964
Since the late sixteenth century, Akan women potters have created ceramic
heads and sometimes complete figures to commemorate deceased royals
and individuals of high status. During the funeral, family members placed
the terracotta portraits of the deceased in a sacred grove near the cemetery,
sometimes with representations of other family members. These sculptures
served as the focal point for funerary rites in which libations and food were
offered to the ancestors.
This example has a rounded face with protruding elliptical eyes that tilt
downward and a delicately shaped nose. These circular shapes are repeated
by the eyebrows, ears, and open, oval-shaped mouth which projects from the
smooth surface of the face. An incised line curves around the forehead, indicating
the hairline. The surface of the sculpture has been covered with a clay slip tinted
black, a color linked to the ancestral world and spiritual power in Akan thought.
Like other examples of African portraiture, these commemorative sculptures
are idealized representations that convey individuality through specifics
of scarification and hairstyle. The artist would typically be summoned to
the deathbed of the deceased in order to observe his or her distinguishing
characteristics, which she would depict later, working from memory to capture the
individual’s essence. The figural terracotta sculptures vary enormously in style,
ranging from fairly naturalistic and sculpturally rounded forms to examples that
are solid, flat, and more dramatically stylized.
Buffalo (Bocio), 19th century
Republic of Benin; Fon
Silver, iron, wood; H. 12 in. (30.5 cm)
Gift of Anne d’Harnoncourt and Joseph Rishel, in memory of René and Sarah Carr
d’Harnoncourt and Nelson A. Rockefeller, 2002 (2002.517.1)
Royal works of art, like this silver buffalo, were made by members of the
Huntondji family, who served Fon kings as jewelers and smiths since the
eighteenth century. Though small in size, this shimmering silver creature radiates
strength and determination. Bulging eyes, bared teeth, black curved horns, cocked
ears, and swishing tail create this effect. Its eyes, horns, and tail are made from
iron, a material associated with the Fon war god, Gu. The forest buffalo was an
emblem of the Fon king Guezo, who ruled Dahomey (modern Republic of Benin)
from 1818 until 1858. The qualities associated with a ruler’s emblem—in the
case of the buffalo, strength, enduring memory, and royal legacy—were seen as
defining a king’s reign. Although he came to power by usurping the throne of his
older brother, Guezo is recalled as an important leader who unified the diverse
constituencies of the kingdom.
Symbols of Fon kings were determined in a divination ceremony known as fa,
which predicted the nature and character of each king’s reign. The buffalo emblem
is one of 256 different fa divination signs, which were represented in a variety of
artistic media created to support and enhance the king’s authority. Sculptural
forms, like this example, in addition to functioning as royal symbols, also served
as bocio, empowered objects that provided protection to the king. Placed in palace
shrines where they served as the focus of prayer, these works were given potency
through the presence of powerful substances in their interiors. Royal bocio were
also displayed during ceremonial processions and transported to battlefields
during times of war.
To create this buffalo figure, the sculptor sheathed a solid wooden core with
very thin pieces of silver. He tacked these pieces to the surface in individual
sheets, creating a patchwork effect. Then he finished the surface with hatching
marks to simulate hide and incised vertical lines for the large, bared teeth. The
sculptor’s technique was a clever one, because silver was a luxury material derived
primarily from European coins. The artist’s technique of encasing wood in sheet
metal maximized the visual effects of a costly material without using the large
quantities of metal required for lost-wax casting.
The Fon kingdom of Dahomey, founded in the early seventeenth century, was
an important regional power renowned for its strong monarchy, military prowess,
and impressive court arts. Dahomey’s influence expanded in the eighteenth
century with the capture of the port city of Ouidah. From this coastal center, the
kingdom participated in lucrative trade with Europeans, growing prosperous first
by serving as a middleman in the Atlantic slave trade and, later, by selling palm
oil. French colonization and the subsequent abolishment of the institution of
kingship led to the fall of Dahomey in the late nineteenth century.
Figure (Bocio), 19th–early 20th century
Republic of Benin; Fon
Wood, bone, metal wire, sacrificial materials; H. 19 1/2 in. (49.5 cm)
Purchase, The Denise and Andrew Saul Philanthropic Fund Gift, 1984 (1984.190)
This bust once served as a protective device, or bocio, ensuring its owner’s health
and well-being, and safeguarding against potential harm. Ending in a pointed
stake, it was hammered into the ground. Unlike the sumptuous bocio made for Fon
kings, this kind of art is prescribed by diviners for use by nonroyal individuals.
The carvings are most often made by nonspecialists for their family members and
then empowered by a diviner who adds various organic substances. The most
powerful bocio are made by ritual specialists such as diviners, called bokonon, and
priests associated with the deities known as vodun.
The unrefined carving style and the rough surfaces combine to create an
aesthetic of raw energy. The massive head is carved with faces on either side.
The larger, more dominant head faces front, its inscrutable gaze and pursed
lips suggesting intense concentration. On the other side is a smaller, skull-like
face whose otherworldly gaze is accentuated by its asymmetrical, empty eye
sockets. The disproportionately large head underscores the centrality of physical
perception, while the presence of two sets of eyes suggests a state of heightened
vision and watchfulness.
Plant and animal materials give the work supernatural powers. A dog’s
skull crowns the head, and a garland of serpent bones encircles the neck. Such
materials have symbolic significance. The presence of the skull of a dog, an
animal praised for its protective skills, reinforces notions of guardianship and
surveillance central to the efficacy of this object. Snakes call to mind poisonous
The resulting work functions proactively as a defense mechanism, responding
to the varied needs of its owner. Uses may include the detection of thieves,
protection from sorcery, and the manipulation of weather. As a surrogate for the
individual who commissioned it, a bocio serves as a decoy, drawing harmful forces
away from its owner. Operating at the intersection of the spiritual and human
realms, bocio are strategically situated along paths, roadways, agricultural fields,
and near family compounds, or placed inside homes and shrines.
Veranda Post: Equestrian, before 1938
Artist: Olowe of Ise (ca. 1873–1938)
Nigeria, Ekiti region; Yoruba
Wood, pigment; H. 71 in. (180.3 cm)
Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1996 (1996.558)
In the early twentieth century, a Yoruba ruler commissioned this architectural
column from one of the most renowned sculptors in the history of Yoruba art,
Olowe of Ise. Born in the nineteenth century in Efon-Alaiye, a famed carving
center, Olowe moved as a youth southeast to Ise. There, his artistic reputation
was established when he carved a program of architectural sculptures for its king,
the Arinjale. Subsequent commissions of architectural sculpture for the palaces
of other regional leaders brought Olowe even greater recognition as a master
sculptor. Admired by his contemporaries, Olowe’s artistic talent is recalled in
oriki, or praise poems, composed in his honor. His accomplishments were also
recognized in the West. In 1924, a pair of his palace doors was exhibited in
London and acquired for the British Museum.
Olowe created this veranda post, one of several, for the exterior courtyard of
a Yoruba palace. Carved from one piece of wood, the composition combines two
classic Yoruba icons of power and leadership. The most prominent of these is the
equestrian warrior, who is depicted frontally sitting regally on a diminutive horse.
He holds a spear and a revolver. The image of the mounted warrior symbolizes
the military might needed to form kingdoms. Local leaders adopted this image to
validate their rule. At the base of the post, the kneeling female figure is depicted
as the dominant form. In Yoruba culture, women are honored as the source of
human life and embody ideas of spiritual, political, and economic power. These
allegorical representations underscore the wealth and power of the ruler who
commissioned the work.
Here, as in other examples of African sculpture, proportion and scale are
altered and exaggerated to symbolize ideas. The disproportionately large heads
represent character, self-control, and motivation. Eyes are large to suggest
awareness. Among the Yoruba, the most beautiful people have a gap between
their upper front teeth. The woman’s exaggerated breasts symbolize her ability to
have children and to nurture them. The woman is represented slightly larger than
the warrior, suggesting that she is the essential support. The warrior’s horse, less
important than its rider, is depicted as smaller. The subordinate role of the two
youths by the woman’s side is suggested by their small scale.
Stylistically, Olowe was very innovative in his composition. He is especially
known for the manner in which figures project beyond the immediate boundaries
of the sculptural space. Here, instead of the usual Yoruba practice of depicting
figures in frontal poses, he sculpted the female figure turning toward the left with
the two smaller attendants radiating outward at oblique angles. The compressed
style of the upper portion of the column, with its weighty and self-contained
equestrian figure, contrasts with the sense of kinetic energy created by the
dynamic composition of multiple figures below. The sculpture’s formal complexity
is enhanced by its textured surface, with details originally painted in black, white,
and royal blue. The deep carving style was well suited to the intense raking
sunlight of its original setting just inside an exterior veranda.
The Yoruba, who live in southwestern Nigeria and southern Benin, are a
diverse people with a rich cultural and artistic heritage of considerable antiquity.
Although they number over 15 million people, the Yoruba embrace an overarching
common identity through shared language and history. They trace the origins
of both life and civilization to their founding city of Ile-Ife, which was a thriving
urban center by the eleventh century. In the centuries that followed, numerous
autonomous city-states developed, related through professed descent from
Ile-Ife. In general, each city-state was governed by a sacred ruler, whose power
was balanced by a council of elders. Artists working for these regional leaders
produced a wide range of art forms designed to glorify the status of the king and
Helmet Mask (Gelede), ca. 1930–71
Artists: Fagbite Asamu of Idahin and Falola Edun
Republic of Benin, Ketu region; Yoruba
Wood, metal nails, pigment; H. 41 in. (104.1 cm)
Gift of Roda and Gilbert Graham, 1992 (1992.225.1)
The masking tradition known as Gelede is believed to have originated among the
Yoruba people of the Ketu region, in today’s Republic of Benin, sometime in the
late eighteenth century. Gelede honors the spiritual powers of elderly women
who are referred to as awon iya wa, or “our mothers.” Their powers are not limited
to human fertility but extend to agricultural bounty, wealth, and human health,
and are believed to be akin to those of the gods. In order to direct their potent
energies positively, such elderly women must be appropriately honored.
Each year, at the beginning of a new agricultural cycle, Gelede performances
are organized by the male and female titled elders of the Gelede society. While
entertaining, and often ribald, the masquerades are a serious tribute to the
contributions made by elderly women in order to maintain social order, preserve
well-being, and reinforce cultural values. Numerous masquerades appear in
sequence over a two-day period. The maskers, all male, wear sculpted wooden
masks on top of their heads and, in some cases, carved wooden breasts and
stomachs. The textiles used for their costumes are borrowed clothes of local
women. The masked dancers perform in pairs, offering social and spiritual
commentary through role recognition and satire. The elaborately choreographed
dances are accompanied by an orchestra of drums and a chorus of male and
The imagery of the masks used in Gelede address a range of subjects relating
to all aspects of Yoruba society. Usually, the base of a Gelede mask is a human
face. The calm expression indicates patience and self-control, highly valued
characteristics of female role models. The imagery above the face may depict
animals, objects, or humans that refer to a particular individual or situation in
the community, or it may illustrate a popular proverb or song. Such imagery
often serves as a metaphor, designed to reinforce positive behavior within
the community. In this example, one of an original pair, the face is flanked by
long curving snakes that are devouring antelopes. Representations of animals
consuming other animals are depicted frequently on Gelede masks. They are
allusions to competing spiritual or social forces and encourage other, less
destructive means to resolve conflict.
This mask reflects the creative collaboration of two generations of sculptors
from the same workshop. The face was sculpted by Ketu master Fagbite Asamu,
an artist who is remembered for his innovative Gelede creations which included
movable attachments that could be manipulated by the performer. On this
example, the hinged extensions in the form of snakes were carved by Fagbite’s
son, Falola Edun, who completed the work in 1971. The fluid forms of the serpents
are composed of interlocking segments of wood secured by nails. Because a
premium is placed upon innovation in Gelede performances, new designs are
continually introduced into the repertory of forms.
(Please see also two excerpts from the film Efe/Gelede Ceremonies among the
Western Yoruba, which may be viewed on the Museum’s website. One shows the
sculptor Falola Edun completing work on the Gelede mask, while the other shows
the mask being performed. [For complete information on these excerpts, see the
Videography in the Selected Resources section.])
Head of an Oba, ca. 1550
Nigeria, kingdom of Benin; Edo peoples
Brass; H. 9 1/4 in. (23.5 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.86)
Cast brass heads such as this one were commissioned by the kings of Benin to
be placed on royal ancestral altars. The kingdom of Benin was a state founded
around 1300 in the southern part of today’s Nigeria. It flourished for over half a
millennium led by a succession of dynastic leaders, known as Obas. The Oba,
who was considered to be semi divine during his lifetime, was the political and
spiritual leader of his people. He governed a complex network of lesser chiefs
with varied political, administrative, and ritual duties. Upon ascending the throne,
one of the Oba’s first ritual duties was to establish an altar commemorating the
life and achievements of the previous king, his father.
The heads cast in brass are idealized representations of the individual Obas.
This head, which dates to the mid-sixteenth century, is among the earliest
examples of the genre, as indicated by the thin casting and naturalistic style.
Later examples are more stylized, heavier castings, as metal became more
plentiful through trade with European merchants. Here, the face is softly
modeled, with broad nose, generous lips, and fleshy cheeks. Iron inlays originally
filled the pupils of the large eyes, to intensify the gaze; iron was associated with
formidable strength. The Oba’s crown, formed of diagonally woven strands of
coral beads with long fringes, and his tiered coral necklace are rendered with
exacting precision. The focus upon the head to represent the Oba is symbolically
significant: in Benin culture, the head is believed to have a special role in
directing an individual’s success in life. Because the welfare of the entire kingdom
is dependent on the king’s guidance, his head was itself the focus of ritual
Placed on the ancestral altar, the brass head not only commemorates a
deceased Oba but offers an enduring reminder of his successful leadership
throughout his reign. Such an altar was a point of contact with the spirit of the
deceased king, should the Oba need support and advice from his ancestors.
Palace ceremonies, in which the continuity of divine kingship was reinforced,
took place—and continue to take place today—in front of these altars. Located
in an open courtyard, royal ancestral altars are low, semicircular mud platforms.
Hollow-cast brass heads, each supporting a carved ivory tusk (inserted into the
large hole on top), would be placed on each altar along with other royal objects,
including brass altar tableaus and figurative representations, carved wooden
staffs, brass bells, and ceremonial swords. Brass and ivory, both valuable and
durable materials, symbolized the Oba’s power and wealth.
Historically, the Oba was the principal patron of the arts in Benin. The
artists’ guilds—which included blacksmiths, brass casters, sculptors in wood
and ivory, bead workers and costume makers, and leather workers—worked
under his patronage. Most of the art created served to glorify the king, reinforce
royal hierarchies, and enhance court life. Traditional art production under
the patronage of the king came to an abrupt end in 1897, when British troops
destroyed the capital city and looted the palace. Today the kingdom of Benin
exists as a political subdivision within Nigeria. Many of its ritual, political,
and artistic activities resumed in 1914, when the son of the king exiled in 1897
returned to Benin. Heirs to this tradition continue to represent their people as
cultural leaders within the contemporary Nigerian state.
Pendant Mask, 16th century
Nigeria, kingdom of Benin; Edo peoples
Ivory; H. 9 3/8 in. (23.8 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1972
This pendant mask was created in the early sixteenth century for an Oba named
Esigie, in honor of his mother Idia. The face has softly modeled, naturalistic
features, with graceful curves that echo the oval shape of the head. Four carved
scarification marks, a number associated with females, indicate her gender.
Iron inlays for the pupils and rims of the eyes intensify the Queen Mother’s
authoritative gaze and suggest her inner strength. The two vertical depressions on
her forehead were also inlaid with iron. She is depicted wearing a choker of coral
beads and her hair is arranged in an elegant configuration that resembles a tiara.
The intricately carved openwork designs are stylized mudfish alternating with
the faces of Portuguese traders. Both motifs are associated with the Oba and his
counterpart, the sea god Olokun. The mudfish is a creature that lives both on land
and in water, and a symbol of the king’s dual nature as both human and divine.
Similarly, the Portuguese, as voyagers from across the sea, may have been seen
as denizens of Olokun’s realm. Like the sea god, they brought great wealth and
power to the Oba.
In Benin culture, ivory holds both material and symbolic value. As a luxury
good, ivory was Benin’s principal commercial commodity and helped to attract
Portuguese traders who, in turn, brought wealth to the kingdom in the form
of copper and coral. In addition, ivory is white, a color that symbolizes ritual
purity and is also associated with Olokun, who is considered to be a source of
extraordinary wealth and fertility.
Queen Idia is honored as a powerful and politically astute woman who
provided critical assistance to her son during the kingdom’s battles to expand.
Upon the successful conclusion of the war, Esigie paid tribute to Idia by
bestowing upon her the title of Queen Mother, a custom that has continued with
subsequent rulers until the present time. The title of Queen Mother, or Iyoba, is
given to the woman who bears the Oba’s first son, the future ruler of the kingdom.
Historically, the Queen Mother would have no other children and, instead, devote
her life to raising her son. Oba Esigie is said to have worn the mask as a pectoral
during rites commemorating his mother. The hollow back, holes around the
perimeter, and stopper composed of several tendrils of hair at the summit suggest
that the mask functioned as an amulet, filled with special and powerful materials
that protected the wearer. Today, such pendants are worn at annual ceremonies of
spiritual renewal and purification.
Plaque: Oba on Horseback, ca. 1550–1680
Nigeria, kingdom of Benin; Edo peoples
Brass; H. 19 1/2 in. (49.5 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1965
Around 1600, a Dutch visitor to the court of Benin described the magnificent
palace complex, with its high-turreted buildings, as one of immense size and
striking beauty. In the long, square galleries, wooden pillars were covered from
top to bottom with brass plaques. Cast in relief from a wax model, the plaques
were mounted on the palace pillars by nails punched through the corners. The
plaques depicted the Oba and various members of his retinue, including warrior
chiefs, titleholders, priests, court officials, attendants, and foreign merchants.
Shown singly or in small groups, the figures are portrayed in meticulous detail,
their role and status indicated by costume, ornament, and hairstyle. On plaques
with multiple figures, the scale of the figures denotes their position within Benin
court hierarchy. The largest one is most important, with others decreasing in size
according to their relative significance.
On this plaque, a regally dressed Oba seated sidesaddle on a horse is
accompanied by prominent officials and other attendants. To emphasize his power
and authority, the Oba is positioned in the center, is the largest figure, and wears
his full coral bead regalia, including a high collar of stacked necklaces and crown
of beads. All coral was owned by the Oba and, because it comes from the sea, is
associated with Olokun, god of the sea. The Oba is attended by two smaller figures
holding protective shields. These titled administrative officials were responsible for
palace provisions and for supplying ceremonial sacrifices. Swordbearers of lesser
rank, indicated by their smaller size, support the king’s outstretched arms. Smaller
still, and therefore of least importance, are the two miniature figures who hover in
the corners above the Oba and the one who supports his feet. The background is
ornamented by quatrefoil motifs representing river leaves, an allusion to Olokun
and the prosperity brought across the seas through trade with the Portuguese.
In African art, the materials are often as meaningful as the forms the artist
gives them. Because brass, an alloy of copper and zinc, was scarce and costly,
its use was dictated exclusively by the Oba, whose possession and control of
brass connoted his power, wealth, and authority. The durability of the metal was
fitting for objects intended to be lasting tributes to the greatness of Benin kings.
The shiny, reddish gold surface of polished brass was considered beautiful yet
intimidating, an appropriate symbol for royal power.
Although it is not known how the brass plaques were originally arranged on
the pillars, scholars generally agree that they were conceived in groups. By the
end of the seventeenth century, the plaques were no longer used as decoration
but were stored in the palace and consulted on matters of court etiquette,
costume, and ceremony. Almost 900 of these plaques survive today, providing a
detailed visual record of court life.
Shrine (Ifiri), 19th–20th century
Nigeria, Niger Delta region; Western Ijo
Wood, paint; H. 25 7/16 in. (64.8 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Matthew T. Mellon Foundation,
Sculptural shrines, called ifiri by the Western Ijo, are found among the diverse
communities of peoples living in the Niger Delta region of coastal Nigeria. The
creation and use of ifiri are informed by the warrior ethos of the Ijo, who proudly
regard themselves as warlike people. The form of ifiri is notable for its raw ferocity,
conveyed visually through a combination of imagery that evokes both human
and animal elements. Owned by an individual, clan, or family, an ifiri embodies
notions of aggression and personal achievement. It offers protection against
violence, while serving as a menacing reminder of the owner’s accomplishments
and destructive potential.
This shrine takes the form of a human being seated on a stool on top of a
snarling, four-legged animal. The animal’s massive rectangular head with two
large horns, gaping mouth framed by fangs, and bared teeth convey a threatening
demeanor. There is no consensus on the source of the animal imagery, which
may incorporate the features of leopards, hippos, and/or elephants. On its legs
are human heads or skulls with similarly prominent teeth. The figure above
represents a warrior, perhaps the owner of the shrine. He wears a headdress with
four inverted horns and bares his teeth. The sharp pointed shapes of the horns
and fangs add to the sense of aggression. In his right hand, he grasps a cup with
which he will pour libations to the shrine. In his left, he displays a small fan that,
along with his seated position and scarification marks, symbolize status and
While the exact meaning of such imagery may be unclear, the function of the
work is unambiguous. Offerings to these shrines were believed to contribute to
the success of such male occupations as hunting, trade, and war by enhancing
strength and ferocity. Additionally, libations were made to express gratitude
for past successes and protection. Such shrines continue to be employed as a
deterrent against urban violence.
Janus-Faced Headdress, 19th–20th century
Nigeria, Cross River region; Ejagham, Akparabong clan
Wood, leather, paint, cane, horn, nails; H. 21 in. (53.3 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
Skin-covered headdresses are owned by associations whose membership is
defined by age, sex, vocation, or skill. These associations include hunter and
warrior societies, age-level groups, and societies of wealthy men and women. The
headdresses are worn during funerals and initiations of association members and
sometimes used for ceremonies related to agricultural concerns.
The technique of covering carved wood headdresses with leather is unique to
the area along the Cross River, which straddles the border between the presentday
nations of Nigeria and Cameroon. Artists use antelope skin softened by
a lengthy soaking in water. The skin is then stretched over the carved wooden
form and bound and pegged in place, where it eventually dries and stiffens. A
glossy surface is achieved by rubbing the headdress with palm oil prior to its
performance. The performer, who wears a long gown of string netting or cotton
cloth, attaches the basketry cap of the headdress to the top of his head with a
chinstrap. His face is covered with semitransparent cloth. Between performances,
the headdress is wrapped and stored with great care.
This exceptional example has a solid wooden core carved with two similar
faces in opposing directions, often referred to as a Janus face. The strikingly
lifelike faces, covered with leather, have eyes made of separate pieces of leather
pegged into the finished piece. Four curved and ribbed antelope horns, accented
with blue pigment, are set into holes on the top of the head. Painted designs
on the forehead and cheeks of the faces represent nsibidi, an indigenous writing
system whose symbols were sometimes tattooed on the human body. Multiple
levels of meaning are attached to such symbols, knowledge of which is often
restricted to association members of the highest status and rank. Likewise, the
Janus face has several levels of meaning. It conveys the ability to simultaneously
see what is in front and behind, to discern connections between past and future
events, and to observe both the human and spiritual worlds.
Figure of a Chief (Lefem), 19th–20th century
Wood; H. 40 1/4 in. (102.2 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1968
In the various Bangwa chiefdoms of western Cameroon, figurative sculptures,
known as lefem, are created to commemorate royal ancestors. These monumental
portraits depict the chief, or Fon, as well as other members of the royal family.
Commissioned during the lifetime of the chief, the sculptures would be presented
publicly after his death, during funeral ceremonies honoring the Fon and marking
the installation of his successor. They were displayed in the palace courtyard
along with other commemorative portraits of rulers from previous generations.
Viewed together, these sculptures document dynastic lines of leadership and
serve as visual reminders of the Fon’s legacy.
This dynamic figure of a Bangwa Fon emphasizes the power, wealth, and
privilege of his position. The cap he wears represents a type of prestige hat
that is woven and decorated with knotted tufts of yarn. Around his neck is an
elaborate collar of leopard’s claws, a symbol of the ruler’s strength. The Fon is
depicted holding other official insignia of ritual importance. In his right hand is
a beaded calabash, a container for palm wine; in his left is a long-stemmed pipe
for smoking tobacco. Palm wine and tobacco were believed to have life-giving
properties whose consumption reinforced the Fon’s power. The figure’s dynamic
stance, with his head turning one way and the lower body another, is unusual in
African sculpture. His bent legs, flexed arms, large bulging eyes, and open mouth
further suggest that the potent energy of the Fon remains even after his death.
Palm-Wine Container, 19th–20th century
Gourd, glass beads, cloth, cane; H. 30 in. (76.2 cm)
Purchase, Gifts in memory of Bryce Holcombe, 1986 (1986.336a,b)
Of the many ritual items in a Grassfields kingdom’s royal treasury, beadembroidered
calabashes are among the most important. These containers were
used exclusively by the Fon (chief) to store palm wine served on ceremonial
occasions (fig. 4). The ritual consumption of palm wine was considered a sacred
activity and reinforced the Fon’s spiritual and political power. Palm wine was also
an essential component of sacrificial libations to the ancestors.
This example features a long-necked calabash attached to a tall cylindrical
basketry base. The carved wood stopper has two horned animal heads facing
opposing directions and a third animal head pointing upward, symbols of allseeing
powers. The entire assemblage is covered with cloth embroidered with
strands of translucent and opaque glass beads that form intricate and colorful
circular, diamond-shaped, and zigzag patterns.
These abstract geometric motifs symbolize attributes of royal power. The
circular medallions surrounding the spherical body refer to the earth spider, a
symbol of supernatural wisdom and communication. Because this type of spider
burrows in the earth, it is believed to have the ability to unite humans, who live
above the ground, with the ancestors who are buried below. Diamond-shaped
motifs on the stopper and on the sides and bottom rim of the stand represent the
frog, a symbol of fertility and increase. Their presence on the container conveys
the idea that, with the support of many people, a peaceful and prosperous
kingdom is possible.
Rulers throughout the many kingdoms in the Grassfields region of western
Cameroon employed a range of art objects to assert their political, economic,
and religious power. Presented publicly in lavish displays of wealth and power,
many court objects were distinguished by their elaborate bead embroidery.
Imported from Europe, beads were considered a luxury material whose use and
distribution were controlled by the Fon. The decoration of wooden sculpture with
vast quantities of brilliantly colored beads transformed utilitarian objects, such
as stools, vessels, and pipes, into symbols of royal status and prestige.
Reliquary Figure (Nlo Byeri), 19th–20th century
Wood, metal, oil; H. 25 1/4 in. (64.1 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1965
The Fang peoples of Gabon believed that ancestral relics held great spiritual
power. Byeri was a Fang association devoted to the veneration of lineage
ancestors and founders, leaders, and fertile women who made significant
contributions to society during their lifetime. After death, their relics, particularly
the skull, were conserved in cylindrical bark containers and guarded by carved
wooden heads or figures mounted atop the receptacles (fig. 5).
The lustrous black surface of this carved female figure still glistens from
repeated applications of palm oil used for ritual purification. The sculptor
shaped this figure to illustrate the ability to hold opposites in balance, a
quality admired by the Fang. He juxtaposed the large head of an infant with the
developed body of an adult. The static pose and expressionless face contrast with
the palpable tension of the bulging muscles and the projecting forms of the arms,
legs, and breasts.
These reliquary sculptures may be male or female and are not considered
portraits of the deceased. They were often decorated with gifts of jewelry or
feathers and received ritual offerings of libations, such as palm oil. On the
occasion of initiation into Byeri, the figures were removed from their containers
and manipulated like puppets in performances that dramatized the raising of the
dead for didactic purposes.
During the early twentieth century, Fang reliquary sculpture began to be
acquired by Western collectors, who admired the inspired interpretation of the
human form. This particular work was formerly in the collections of two wellknown
modernist artists, the painter André Derain and the sculptor Jacob Epstein.
Crucifix, 16th–early 17th century
Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola; Kongo
Brass; H. 10 3/4 in. (27.3 cm)
Gift of Ernst Anspach, 1999 (1999.295.7)
When Portuguese explorers first arrived at the mouth of the Zaire River in 1483,
the Kongo kingdom was thriving and prosperous, with extensive commercial
networks between the coast, interior, and equatorial forests to the north. Portugal
and Kongo soon established a strong trading partnership. In addition to material
goods, the Portuguese also brought Christianity, which was rapidly adopted by
Kongo rulers and established as the state religion in the early sixteenth century
by King Afonso Mvemba a Nzinga. The adoption of Christianity allowed Kongo
kings to foster international alliances not only with Portuguese leaders but
also with the Vatican. In response to their new faith, Kongo craftsmen began to
introduce Christian iconography into their artistic repertoire.
This crucifix demonstrates how Kongo artists adapted and transformed
Western Christian prototypes. Although the general depiction of the central
Christ figure with arms extended follows Western conventions, the features of the
face are African. The presence of four smaller figures with clasped hands—two
seated on the top edges of the cross, one at the apex, and one at the base—is
a departure from standard iconography. These figures are more abstract and
remote, in contrast to the expressionistic treatment of Christ.
Western forms like the crucifix resonated profoundly with preexisting Kongo
religious practices. In Kongo belief, the cross was already regarded as a powerful
emblem of spirituality and a metaphor for the cosmos. An icon of a cross within
a circle, referred to as the Four Moments of the Sun, represents the four parts of
the day (dawn, noon, dusk, and night) that symbolize more broadly the cyclical
journey of life. Kongo kings, having adopted Christianity as the state religion,
commissioned locally made crucifixes for use as emblems of leadership and
power. These crucifixes were cast with copper alloys. The use of copper, a valued
import from Europe, reinforced the association with wealth and power. Although
Christianity was eventually rejected by the Kongo in the seventeenth century, such
works continued to be made as symbols of indigenous cosmological concepts.
Seated Figure (Tumba), 19th–20th century
Democratic Republic of Congo; Kongo, Bambona
Steatite; H. 16 1/4 in. (41.3 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1968
In the Boma region of Democratic Republic of Congo, Kongo peoples placed
carved stone figures representing important individuals on their graves to
remember their deeds in life. These figures are characterized by their wide range
of gestures and postures. They are also distinguished by their use of stone,
unusual in sub-Saharan Africa, where most carving traditions are based on wood.
The association of stone with the concept of permanence makes it appropriate for
use in commemorative funerary statuary.
The person commemorated in this example, made of steatite, was probably
a ruler or noble. He wears a royal cap and a necklace, which symbolize rank and
leadership. He sits cross-legged, left hand at his waist and right supporting his
large, slightly tilted head. Downcast eyes imply deep thought, while his faint
smile suggests serenity and calm. The figure appears closed in on the right side
by its large arm. In contrast, the angular pose of the shorter left arm opens up
the figure’s form. Kongo commentators describe this cross-legged seated posture
as funda nkata, a position that emphasizes balance, composure, and reflection.
On a symbolic level, the circular shape formed by the crossed legs refers to
the unfolding cycle of an individual’s life. Embodying responsible and wise
leadership, the sculpture presents an ideal image of the deceased that illustrates
the Kongo dictum: “I seat myself nobly, upon the circle of my life, weighing what
is going on.”
Power Figure (Nkisi nkondi), 19th century
Democratic Republic of Congo; Kongo
Wood, iron, glass, terracotta, shells, cloth, fiber, paint, seeds, beads; H. 28 1/2 in. (72.4 cm)
The Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman Collection, Gift of Muriel Kallis Newman, in honor of
Douglas Newton, 1990 (1990.334)
This large figure was carved by a Kongo sculptor for a ritual practitioner, who
transformed the object into a vehicle of spiritual communication. Its pose—feet
planted firmly, hands on hips, and head tilted upward—suggests heightened
awareness and readiness. However, the figure could not fulfill its function until
the ritual practitioner activated it with spiritually charged ingredients (fig. 6).
These included certain earths associated with the ancestors and their supernatural
abilities as well as other organic materials, the names of which reference attributes
that can heighten the figure’s effectiveness. The ritual practitioner packed these
sacred substances into the rectangular box inserted into the figure’s abdomen, a
bodily site that the Kongo consider the source of life and personal achievement. He
inserted other empowering ingredients, such as dog’s and leopard’s teeth, into the
figure’s clay hat. Pieces of glass mirror, over the rectangular box and inlaid in the
eyes, serve to deflect malevolent forces, while the white clay covering the face refers
to the realm of the ancestral spirits from which the figure derives its powers. The
figure’s protruding tongue refers to the Kongo word venda, meaning “to lick in order
to activate medicines,” implying that the figure is continually activated.
The Kongo refer to such power objects as nkisi. They are used by ritual
practitioners to solve the problems of the community. This example is an especially
powerful type of nkisi that is associated with moral judgment. Known as nkisi nkondi,
its purpose was to identify and hunt down wrongdoers, such as witches, thieves,
and adulterers (nkondi means “hunter”). Each time the figure’s powers were called
upon, a ritual expert would insert an iron blade, spike, or nail.
The variously shaped bits of metal covering the body provide a visual history of
its use, its surface continually added to with each invocation. Many of the blades
are identified as baaku, a type of knife used in palm wine extraction. The similarity of
this word to baaka, meaning “to demolish or destroy,” is a deliberate visual pun that
relates to the figure’s function of destroying evil within the community.
Chair (Ngumdja), 19th–20th century
Wood, brass tacks, leather; H. 39 in. (99.1 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1970
This chair or throne was one of the principal symbols of the authority of a Chokwe
chief. The Chokwe state was founded in the sixteenth century, when nobles from
the neighboring Lunda empire migrated to northern Angola and asserted their
rule over local peoples. As the state grew in wealth and power, so too did the
Chokwe chiefs, who emphasized the divine nature of their ancestry. The political
and religious importance of the chiefs was underscored through the creation of
lavishly carved utilitarian objects, including staffs, tobacco mortars, combs, and
chairs, that served as insignia of rank and prestige.
This chair was modeled on a type of European chair that was imported into
the area by Portuguese officials beginning in the seventeenth century. Having
previously used caryatid stools as seats of office, Chokwe chiefs adopted the
chair as a symbol of their authority because the form was associated with
powerful foreigners. Like its European prototype, the Chokwe chair was made
from several pieces of wood joined together, rather than a single block of wood
typical of African carving traditions.
Aspects of the chair are European in derivation, such as the leather-covered
seat and decorative brass tacks, an imported luxury. However, Chokwe artisans
incorporated the style and iconography of their established sculptural traditions.
On this example, the backrest is topped on either side by a carved head wearing a
chief’s headdress, while in the center, two birds drink from a shared vessel. Rows
of figures along the rungs and back splats depict characters and scenes from
both everyday and ceremonial life. Here, images of hunting, trade, and domestic
activities are juxtaposed with representations of ritual events, such as initiation
and masquerades. Together, the scenes describe an ordered and harmonious
society over which the chief presides.
Mask, 19th–20th century
Democratic Republic of Congo; Yaka
Wood, cane, raffia, pigment, cloth; H. 17 3/4 in. (45.1 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
This mask was created to be worn during the initiation ceremonies of Yaka boys
(fig. 7). It is composed of a carved wooden face with raffia collar attached to a
basketry framework covered with fiber cloth. A four-legged beast crouches at the
summit. Its outstretched fiber arms with carved wooden hands extend toward the
face, which has exaggerated features. Enormous protruding circular eyes, a long
nose, fangs, and cocked ears convey a sense of extraordinary curiosity and energy.
Among the Yaka, the institution responsible for initiation of boys into
manhood is called nkhanda. In the past, boys resided within an initiation camp,
located outside the village, for a training period of one to three years. Today,
these initiations last approximately a week and provide historical, social, and
religious instruction. The boys also undergo a number of physical ordeals,
including circumcision, culminating in their symbolic death as children and
rebirth as men.
Throughout their seclusion and upon conclusion of their training, members of
nkhanda present a variety of masked performances. The masks are believed to offer
protection to the boys during the period of physical and spiritual vulnerability.
They also serve to introduce important Yaka moral and social precepts as well as
to entertain. Historically, these masks were destroyed at the end of the initiation
Although the specific meaning of the imagery is unclear, Yaka masks generally
illustrate ideas about gender differences, translating song lyrics that focus
on male and female social responsibilities into visual form. On this mask, for
example, the bulging eyes are round like the moon, relating to lunar cycles and,
indirectly, alluding to the role of women.
Prestige Panel, 19th–20th century
Democratic Republic of Congo; Kuba
Raffia; 20 1/4 x 45 3/4 in. (51.4 x 116.2 cm)
Gift of William B. Goldstein M.D., 1999 (1999.522.15)
This double panel of raffia cloth with cut-pile embroidery was created to serve
as a prestige item in Kuba society. The Kuba kingdom has a complex political
structure composed of independent chiefdoms under the central authority of
a king. It was founded in the early seventeenth century by Shyaam a-Mbul a
Ngoong, a ruler who brought together some seventeen different ethnic groups
into a unified polity. Shyaam is recalled as a dynamic and innovative leader
who introduced a number of important Kuba artistic traditions, including lavish
woven and embroidered textiles made of raffia. In fact, the Kuba founding ruler
is said to have identified so closely with the patronage of these textiles that he
adopted the term for raffia palm, shyaam, as his name.
In this complex composition, each panel features a large central interlacing
motif against a diamond-patterned background. The dense patterns have been
embroidered with strands of dyed raffia fiber that are cut close to the surface,
creating a soft, velvety texture. Varying in both tone and texture, the patterns
project dramatically from the gold field.
The preparation, production, and design of Kuba raffia textiles require the
collaborative efforts of both men and women. Men are responsible for cultivating
raffia palm trees and collecting the outer layers of the fronds, which yield fiber
strands. They weave these strands on a vertical heddle loom into panels of cloth
(fig. 8). Individual woven units, known as mbala, are softened and refined to a
linenlike texture by pounding. These flat-woven panels may then be decorated
and stitched together to form garments. Women assemble and decorate their
own skirts, which can be up to nine yards in length. Men fashion their skirts,
which can be of greater length and have a border of raffia tufts. Both genders
employ a range of decorative processes, including dying, appliqué, embroidery,
and patchwork, although some distinctive techniques, such as openwork and cutpile,
are practiced only by women. The completed garments are worn differently:
women wrap the skirt around their bodies, while men gather the cloth around
their hips, secured by a belt with the top folded over.
Some raffia cloth, like this panel, was not fashioned into garments, but was
displayed instead as prestige items. In the past, individual panels of raffia
textiles were used as objects of exchange in financial, legal, and even marital
transactions. They were also displayed and offered as memorial gifts during
funerals, as an indication of the deceased’s importance as well as the generosity
of the surviving family members. Today, despite the availability of machinemade
cotton cloth, raffia textiles are still regarded as the only kind of garment
appropriate to adorn the body of the deceased. An important individual may be
buried dressed in multiple layers of raffia skirts, often family treasures passed
down through generations.
Stool, late 19th century
Attributed to the Buli Master, possibly known as Ngongo ya Chintu
Democratic Republic of Congo; Luba
Wood, metal studs; H. 24 in. (61 cm)
Purchase, Buckeye Trust and Charles B. Benenson Gifts, Rogers Fund and funds from
various donors, 1979 (1979.290)
Sculpted seats are among the most important insignia of office used exclusively
by Luba rulers, including kings, chiefs, and the heads of clans or lineages. A royal
stool is believed to serve as a receptacle for a ruler’s spirit. It therefore holds
great symbolic value as the repository and wellspring of sacred kingship. Such
seats, part of the ensemble of regalia that constitutes a Luba treasury, are an
integral part of the investiture ceremony establishing a ruler’s political authority.
Except for these rare ceremonial occasions, the royal stool was wrapped in cloth
and safeguarded by a specially designated official.
This figurative example is supported by a standing female figure whose high
status is indicated by her elaborate four-lobed coiffure and intricate raised
scarification patterns on her torso, both front and back. The depiction of women
on royal stools acknowledges their important political and symbolic roles in Luba
society. Historically, female royals were often married to chiefs in outlying areas,
helping to expand and unify the kingdom. Because the Luba trace succession
and inheritance through the female line, such marriages established important
bonds of kinship and allegiance. The imagery of the female supporting the stool
symbolizes the fact that the chief or king inherits the right to rule through his
female ancestors. Luba leaders owned a series of items of regalia depicting
female figures which referred to the female body as a receptacle for the spiritual
power of divine kingships.
This royal ceremonial stool was created by an artist known as the Buli
Master, celebrated for the distinctive formal structure and emotional appeal
of his sculptures. His extraordinary artistic legacy is a corpus of about twenty
stylistically related works, all demonstrating a unique expressionism. Lacking the
youthful idealism more commonly seen in African sculpture, this figure has an
elongated face with prominent cheekbones, arching brows, half-closed eyes set
in sunken sockets, a high rounded forehead, and pursed lips. Her body is small
and stooped, suggesting that the seat weighs heavily upon her. These features
create a sense of sadness or suffering not typically seen in African sculpture,
which tends to be fairly emotionless. The Buli Master, named after a village in
the eastern part of Democratic Republic of Congo where some of his works were
acquired, is believed to have been active in the mid- to late nineteenth century.
The sculptor has created a dynamic formal composition, building in volume
and complexity from the base to the top. Her large feet, barely raised from the
base of the stool, provide the foundation for the stool’s vertical support formed
by her short sturdy legs, torso, and large oval head. The seat rests upon her
coiffure and the tips of her fingers. The sense that she bears a heavy burden is
reinforced by exaggerated flattened hands.
All royal stools are conceived of as replicas of an original seat of office given to
the Luba king Kalala Ilunga. The Luba kingdom was said to have been founded by
Kalala Ilunga, a heroic prince who overthrew his despotic uncle to establish a new
dynasty of divine rulers. Leaders of the various Luba chiefdoms in the area have
historically traced their descent from this founding ruler. Their exalted position
within this sacred line of succession is expressed materially by the possession of
royal insignia designed to bolster chiefly authority.
Harp, 19th–20th century
Democratic Republic of Congo; Mangbetu
Wood, hide, twine, brass ring; H. 26 1/2 in. (67.3 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1960
In northern Democratic Republic of Congo, the Mangbetu peoples established an
influential centralized kingdom that reached its apex of power during the second
half of the nineteenth century. Mangbetu aristocrats surrounded themselves with
a variety of finely crafted utilitarian objects, including boxes, stools, weapons,
and musical instruments. The opulence of the kingdom captured the attention of
European visitors to the region, who described Mangbetu court life and its artistic
traditions in glowing terms.
This musical instrument, with freestanding strings that rise in a horizontal
plane from its belly to neck, is a harp. The curved neck ends in a finely carved
head with partially open mouth, as if in song. The wooden sound box is covered
with carefully stitched animal hide. When playing the harp, a musician sat with
the sound box on his lap and the neck pointing away from him. He held the neck
with his left hand and plucked the strings with both. The harp player adjusted the
tone of each string by turning the tuning pegs set in the harp’s neck. Harp players
performed for the entertainment of community groups and, as they played, sang
about events in their travels and heroic deeds of the past.
The presence of a carved head on this harp may reflect an African response to
Western aesthetic taste and patronage. In the colonial period, Europeans began
to commission sculpture from local Mangbetu artists, expanding the demand for
such works. Fascinated by the bound and elongated heads once common among
the Mangbetu (fig. 9), European patrons encouraged artists to include human
forms on objects that were previously nonfigurative. Although popular as gifts to
visiting foreign dignitaries, these figurative objects were rarely commissioned for
local use and their production eventually ceased.
Apron (Ijogolo), 19th–20th century
South Africa; Ndebele
Leather, beads, thread; H. 29 3/4 in. (75.6 cm)
Gift of J. Camp, 1980 (1980.328)
This five-paneled garment is known as an ijogolo, a bridal apron worn by Ndebele
women. Upon marriage, the groom’s family traditionally gave the bride a plain
leather or canvas apron with five flaps. The newly married Ndebele woman
embroidered that apron, creating bold geometric designs with imported glass
beads. She would wear this apron on important ceremonial occasions to signify
her married status (fig. 10). The multiple panels, referred to as “calves,” symbolize
the future children the woman will bear.
Throughout southern Africa, peoples wear beaded garments that comment
upon their stage in life and convey aspects of their individual identity. Different
types of beaded artifacts may communicate social and marital status, number of
children, and a person’s home region or ethnicity.
Although the historical origins of southern African beadwork are uncertain,
it is known that glass beads from Europe were available in the area as early as
the sixteenth century through trade with the Portuguese. During the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries, the region became the world’s largest consumer of glass
beads. Dating beaded works is difficult, although the color and size of the beads,
the patterns and motifs, and the material used can all provide some indication
of age. Older works typically have leather backings and use mostly small, white
beads with minimal color designs, as in this example.
Page from an Illuminated Gospel (“The Ascension”), early 15th century
Ethiopia, Lake Tana region
Wood, vellum, pigment; H. 16 1/2 in. (41.9 cm)
Rogers Fund, 1998 (1998.66)
This full-page illumination is one of twenty-four from a manuscript of the Gospel
that reflects Ethiopia’s longstanding Christian heritage. The Ethiopian Orthodox
Church was established in the fourth century by King Ezana (r. 320–350). He
adopted Christianity as the official state religion of Aksum, a kingdom located
in the highlands of present-day Ethiopia. As the Christian state expanded over
the centuries, monasteries were founded throughout the region. These became
important centers of learning and artistic production, as well as influential
outposts of state power.
The manuscript was created at a monastic center near Lake Tana in the early
fifteenth century. It is composed of 178 leaves of vellum bound between acacia
wood covers. The illuminations depict scenes from the life of Christ and portraits
of the Evangelists. This text and its pictorial format are based upon manuscripts
produced by the Coptic Church. Here, however, these prototypes are transformed
into local forms of expression. For example, the imagery is two-dimensional
and linear, which is characteristic of Ethiopian painting. Additionally, the text is
inscribed not in its original Greek, but in Ge’ez, the ancient liturgical language of
Ethiopia. Ge’ez is one of the world’s oldest writing systems and is the foundation
of today’s Amharic, Ethiopia’s national language.
In this depiction of the Ascension of Christ into heaven, he appears framed
in a red circle at the summit, surrounded by the four beasts of the Evangelists.
Below, Mary and the Apostles gesture upward. The stylistic conventions seen
here, such as the abbreviated definition of facial features and boldly articulated
figures, are consistent throughout the manuscript, suggesting the hand of a single
artist. The artist depicts the figures’ heads frontally and their bodies frequently in
profile. The use of red, yellow, green, and blue as the predominant color scheme
is typical of Ethiopian manuscripts from this period. The images were intended to
be viewed during liturgical processions.
The Gospels were considered among the most holy of Christian texts by the
Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Such manuscripts were often commissioned by
wealthy patrons for presentation as gifts to churches. While the text demonstrated
the erudition of its monastic creator, the elaborate ornamentation reflected the
prestige of the benefactors. Many works of Ethiopian art were destroyed by Islamic
incursions during the sixteenth century, making this manuscript a rare survivor.
Textile Mantle (Lamba Mpanjaka), 1998
Martin Rakotoarimanana (b. 1963)
Madagascar; Malagasy (Merina)
Silk; H. 108 in. (274.3 cm)
Purchase, Rogers Fund and William B. Goldstein Gift, 1999 (1999.102)
Situated in the Indian Ocean just off the east coast of Africa, the unique island
cultures of the Malagasy peoples emerged from a confluence of African, Asian,
and Arab origins. While sharing a common heritage, their diversity finds
expression in the variety of hand-woven textiles that have long been produced on
the island. Among the most celebrated of Malagasy textile traditions is silk cloth
produced by Merina weavers in the central highlands since precolonial times.
Historically, such brilliantly colored and intricately patterned textiles were
made by female weavers from dyed silk thread purchased from Arab and Indian
traders. Beginning in the nineteenth century, the silk was locally grown. Weavers
create the textile on a horizontal, fixed heddle loom with a continuous weft and
warp using a technique called akotofahana. Geometric designs were created by
adding supplementary weft threads that “float” over the woven ground. These
motifs, which may derive from plant and animal imagery, use color and pattern
combinations to dazzling effect.
Merina silk textiles were highly regarded for their durability, sheen, and warmth.
Privileged classes of Merina society wore the cloth as lamba, a type of mantle
that is draped around the shoulders or over the body. In death, the cloths served
as funerary shrouds for these nobles. The value and prestige associated with
akotofahana textiles was such that they were also given as gifts to foreign dignitaries.
The tradition of weaving elaborately patterned silk textiles was abandoned
by the late nineteenth century, with the increasing importation of less costly
European textiles. A century later, however, finely worked akotofahana is again being
produced in the central highlands of Madagascar. In the 1990s, a group of Merina
weavers based in Antananarivo began to create silk textiles, often replicating
historic nineteenth-century designs of textiles in museum collections, such as
the British Museum. The extraordinary example here was made by Imerina master
Martin Rakotoarimanana in 1998 as part of this contemporary revival.
Untitled Portrait, 1956–57, printed 1995
Seydou Keïta (1923–2001)
Gelatin silver print; 15 3/8 x 21 3/4 in. (39.1 x 55.2 cm)
Purchase, Joseph and Ceil Mazer Foundation Inc.
Gift, 1997 (1997.364)
Commercial studio portrait photography was introduced in Mali in the 1930s
and developed into a thriving industry in Bamako, the capital city, during the
postwar period. Bamako’s rapid economic development and accompanying
population boom fueled demand for photographic portraits. Such photographs
were commissioned by members of the growing middle class as mementos to be
displayed on the walls of their homes or sent to faraway family members.
Among the busiest portrait studios in Bamako was that of photographer
Seydou Keïta. Born in 1923, Keïta originally apprenticed as a carpenter but found
his vocational calling when he was given a 6 x 9 Kodak Brownie camera by his
uncle. After experimenting on his own, Keïta learned darkroom techniques from
two established commercial photographers. He opened his own studio in 1948 in
Bamako-Koura, an area of the city whose proximity to a train station and popular
marketplace ensured a steady stream of potential clients.
Keïta soon became highly successful as a commercial photographer, producing
tens of thousands of portraits over the course of his career. He developed a
consistent and recognizable signature style that proved popular with local clients,
who requested that their prints include a stamp with Keïta’s name. A typical
sitting took place during the day in his outside courtyard and could last up to
an hour. Keïta gave his sitters the opportunity to individualize their portraits,
helping them select a flattering pose and offering a variety of accessories as
props. He posed his clients against a printed cloth, which often resulted in
vibrant juxtapositions between the patterns of the sitter’s clothes and that of the
backdrop. Other compositional strategies included the use of a shallow depth of
field and an emphasis on repetition and symmetry in framing his subject.
In this portrait, a woman reclines on her side with a relaxed and self-possessed
dignity. The tight cropping places the focus entirely on the sitter, while the
camera angle makes her appear on a slightly tilted slope, creating a symmetrical
composition. The floral print of the woman’s boubou (a traditional form of dress)
contrasts with the bold black and white checkered blanket in the foreground and
the swirling arabesques of the cloth backdrop, creating a syncopated clash of
patterns and rhythms. Her dress and pose communicate significant aspects of
her identity, revealing how traditional concepts of portraiture are maintained and
modified through the medium of photography. Her head wrap is worn in a trendy
style called “à la Gaulle,” its jaunty angle framing the scarification marks of ethnic
affiliation that she bears on her forehead. She rests her left arm casually at her
waist, dangling her long slender fingers, which are considered a sign of high
When Mali won independence from France in 1962, Keïta was offered a
position as official government photographer, where he remained until 1977. His
governmental responsibilities required him to close his studio in 1964 and he
never reopened his portrait practice, although he did continue his photography.
Beginning in the 1990s, Keïta’s work was included in several exhibitions in the
United States and Europe, bringing him considerable fame in the international art
ntitled (Vessel), 1997
Magdalene Odundo (b. 1950)
Red clay; H. 19 3/4 in. (50.2 cm)
Purchase, The Katcher Family Foundation Inc. Gift, and Gift of Susan Dwight Bliss, by
exchange, 1998 (1998.328)
The contemporary ceramic vessels of Kenyan-born artist Magdalene Odundo
embody the diverse formal and functional sources that have inspired the artist.
Initially trained as a graphic artist, Odundo moved in 1971 to London and
enrolled as a student at the Royal College of Art. An interest in the possibilities
of clay as a medium led her to return to Africa to study various pottery-making
techniques in Nigeria and Kenya. There, she observed women potters handbuilding
and firing vessels using techniques passed down for generations.
Odundo also examined the pottery traditions of San Ildefonso Pueblo in New
Mexico, where women produce highly polished blackware ceramics.
While absorbing these experiences, Odundo has developed her own technique
and style. Like traditional potters, she hand-builds her vessel, shaping the
clay without the aid of a potter’s wheel (fig. 11). When the clay has dried, she
burnishes the vessel, covers it with slip, and burnishes it again. Initial firing in
a gas kiln results in an orange-red color. Vessels are often fired again, this time
using wood fuel in an oxygen-reduced atmosphere, imparting a surface that is
partially or completely blackened.
Odundo’s vessels may be described as variations on a theme, in which
subtle modifications of form have great aesthetic impact. Certain shapes—a
swelling bowl, nipple-like protrusions—are suggestive of the female body. This
long-necked vessel has softly bulging contours that express a sense of fullness.
Dramatic striations of color are the unexpected result of the unpredictable nature
of Odundo’s firing technique.
african art / art africain / primitive art / art primitif / arts
premiers / art gallery / art tribal / tribal art / l'oeil et la main /
galerie d'art premier / Agalom / Armand Auxiètre /
www.african-paris.com / www.agalom.com